Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Burundi: Scaling up Climate Resilience in the Land of 3,000 Hills

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R. Bociaga / Shutterstock R. Bociaga / Shutterstock

Burundi, a beautiful land of thousands of collines (hills), is losing its natural capital base at an alarming rate because of climate change. The country is sculpted with lush green hillsides where 90% of the population lives and grows. It rains nine months of the year and waterfalls run freely across the country. The 2017 Country Environmental Analysis (CEA) found that the country loses annually 1.6% of its GDP to land degradation. A new joint World Bank-Government of Burundi (GoB) report Tackling Climate Change, Land Degradation and Fragility: Diagnosing Drivers of Climate and Environmental Fragility in Burundi’s Colline Landscapes - Towards a Multi-Sector Investment Plan to Scale up Climate Resilience finds that Burundi loses 5.2% of its land area every year to soil degradation since 2020. The National Development Plan aims to restore 16% of degraded lands to their former agricultural productivity. However, with climate change, this is nowhere near enough to stymie the 200% increase in land degradation expected across the country by 2050, including in 118 collines of the country identified as hotspots for soil erosion.

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Intensifying heavy rainfall events followed by landslides only worsen the situation, degrading scarce lands and creating community tensions, causing families to fight over land access rights and disrupting social cohesion in this post-conflict fragile country. Indeed, in Burundi over 85% of court cases going are over land ownership disputes. Climate change is a threat multiplier, making communities across Burundi’s collines stuck in a vicious cycle of fragility and vulnerability to poverty, land degradation risks, livelihood loss, and unemployment.

In Burundi’s context, urgent investments are needed at national scale to restore the country’s fast degrading landscapes under climate change, secure land rights and restore productivity of agricultural lands. An integrated sustainable landscape management process should be adopted  to build at the same time the resilience of fragile communities and rural livelihoods to intensifying climate-related shocks (landslides, floods and storms chiefly), while injecting much-needed investment into cash-and-opportunity-strapped communities that are reeling from the impacts of shocks, through cash-for-work, digital cash payments and access to alternative revenue-generating livelihoods and new green value chains outside of rain-fed agriculture.

Burundi: A tiny carbon footprint yet overwhelming climate vulnerability

Burundi emits less than 0.02% of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to global warming and yet the country is ranked the 22nd most vulnerable to climate change in the world and the 173rd most climate ready country.

In a recent analysis, we found that, from 1979 to 2018, Burundi’s mean temperature rose by an average 0.31°C per decade (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Burundi’s projected mean temperature under various climate change scenarios (red lines indicating worst-case climate emissions scenario, blue lines indicating best case). Source: Tackling Climate Change, Land Degradation and Fragility, 2022.

By constructing an evidence base of compounded climate, poverty, and conflict vulnerability in Burundi, the World Bank aimed to facilitate consensus-building with national and international stakeholders and make the case for scaling-up investment in local climate resilience and landscape restoration in Burundi and other FCV countries. High GHG-emitting economies could arguably be held responsible—and accountable—for Burundi’s rising level of vulnerability to climate hazards.

One of Africa’s smallest countries, Burundi’s has a population of about 12 million (World Bank, 2021). About 98% of Burundians are socioeconomically vulnerable to climate change impacts but this socioeconomic vulnerability is spatially distributed, with northeastern and eastern regions of the country registering the highest vulnerability (Figure 2).

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Figure. 2. All of Burundi was found to be highly exposed, acutely vulnerable and lacking coping capacity to face compounded conflict and climate risk impacts. Source: Tackling Climate Change, Land Degradation and Fragility, 2022.

In contrast, about 41% of Burundians are highly exposed to conflict and multiple climate hazards (e.g., floods, landslides, droughts, etc.), especially higher in Burundi’s western and northwestern regions. Due to the protracted nature of climate vulnerability, and to fragility and extreme poverty, the coping capacity of individuals and of households remains significantly high across all of Burundi’s hilly landscape.

When climate hazards strike, Burundians have limited adaptive capacity

An overwhelming majority of Burundians (99%) lack the coping ability required to withstand the effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods, and landslides, all of which already affect them. Very high vulnerability to these hazards is almost entirely a function of the warming impact of GHGs without the climate financing to offset their impact.

Climate-related hazards pose an existential threat to almost all the country’s sectors, including agriculture, livestock, fisheries, the environment, ecosystems, health, forestry, energy, infrastructure, human settlement, and water resource management. Climate change impacts—chiefly floods and landslides—are the main drivers of internal displacement, disproportionately affecting women and children living on Burundi’s hillsides.

Incidents of conflict and violence over productive land are rising in a largely rural population, dependent on natural resources and dealing with the recent influx of returnee refugees from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, forcing populations to clot in increasingly smaller (and degraded) plots of land. Crop productivity is low and declining, health conditions are poor, and infrastructure inadequate. There is little public readiness to tackle social, governance, and economic implications from overlapping climate, development and fragility crises. In 2020 alone and every year since, 100% of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Burundi were driven out of their homes by climate-related shocks, mainly floods (UNHCR, 2022).

Flooding of the Lac Tanganyika. Photo: Ange Dany Gakunzi / World Bank
Flooding of the Lac Tanganyika. Photo: Ange Dany Gakunzi / World Bank

Amid all this, the World Bank’s study shows severe, worsening land degradation, which in turn impacts economic growth. A 2017 World Bank analysis estimated that Burundi loses almost 38 million tons of soil a year, calculated a cost of $120 million or 3.9% of GDP in 2014.

The World Bank-GoB study further finds that from 2017 to 2020, more than 33,000 ha—1.2% of Burundi’s land area—experienced acute degradation. This included 10,800 ha of productive land (1% of the total land area). Soil erosion is getting worse; if projected trends continue, sediment loss could have increased by 69% by 2030 from 2020 levels, and by up to 200% by 2050.

World Bank calls on multi-donors to strengthen Burundi’s resilience at scale

Since 2018, the World Bank has been supporting investments to build resilience in Burundi’s rural landscapes, first targeting a pilot set 31 hillside communities through the pilot $30 million Burundi Landscape Restoration and Resilience Project (2018–2024), which received $6 million in additional financing through the Global Environment Facility (2021–2024).

The need to scale up investment in landscape restoration and community climate resilience to all of the country’s 2,692 collines is clear, but much more climate adaptation finance is needed to support Burundi’s Nationally Determined Contribution and other resilience development plans. A preliminary estimate from the World Bank-Government of Burundi study estimates climate investment resilience needs at $1.5M per colline.

The World Bank and UN partners are spearheading a multi-donor platform calling on global climate financing mechanisms and multilateral development organizations to co-mobilize climate finance at the scale required to respond to Burundi’s urgent climate resilience investment needs. In the meantime, the World Bank will continue to support the Government of Burundi to develop a national climate resilience investment plan identifying priority investment to restore ecosystem health, halt and reverse land degradation, scale up climate-smart agriculture, boost community resilience and help save Burundi’s collines urgently. The adaptive capacity of vulnerable communities needs to be expanded, particularly for rural communities, indigenous groups such as the batwa, women, children, internally displaced persons, refugees, and disabled members of society, while building the capacity of national technical institutions to anticipate, plan, and act on climate risks before they make landfall.

Collines in Southeast Burundi. Photo: Ange Dany Gakunzi/World Bank
Collines in Southeast Burundi. Photo: Ange Dany Gakunzi/World Bank

Climate adaptation strategies must be tailor-made to context

Even a small country like Burundi features important spatial and geographic variations in current and projected climate impacts. The Tackling Climate Change, Land Degradation and Fragility Report outlines the tailored solutions needed to create an enabling environment to reduce fragility and improve climate readiness in Burundi.

These include: (i) developing colline-level, multisectoral action plans for climate resilience, as well as local contingency plans that need to be integrated into local development planning processes, especially for the collines most at risk; (ii) building institutional capacity in national and local government to identify climate and environmental risks, monitor impacts, and adopt procedures to move from early warning to early action from national- to colline-level based on projections for rain, landslides, droughts, and other extreme events; (iii) scale-up nature-based solutions and watershed-level landscape management to restore degraded land back to arable use and improve soil fertility and production for the country’s mainly rural population (still highly dependent on agricultural production), while providing new climate-resilient green jobs, value chains, and diversified sources of income outside of agriculture.

These investments for climate impact on the ground underscore that climate change offers an opportunity to do development better. Focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable communities currently left behind by climate finance, we see a way forward to do development better, in a way that builds climate resilience and leaves no one behind. And nowhere is this mission more possible to achieve climate and development impact at scale than in the small but beautiful country of Burundi where a single World Bank project could easily leave a lasting impact across the country’s 3,000 collines.


Arame Tall

Senior Adaptation and Resilience Specialist, Climate Change Group

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