Will Suna get a dam despite the change in rainfall?

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Earlier this year, we were in a country called Suna. If it sounds unfamiliar, it is an imaginary developing country in West Africa. For one day, two dozen senior Ghanaian officials and business leaders in Accra participated in a simulation exercise. They were grappling with a question on whether to build a new hydroelectric dam in the backdrop of uncertain data on water availability for the next 50 years. Although the situation was fictionalized, the problem is quite real for decision makers in many parts of the world.

The broader question was: How do you prepare for the tough, contentious, complex decisions required to deal with impacts of climate change that now seem inevitable? 

That question posed for the simulation exercise was key to the 13th edition of the World Resources Report: Decision Making in a Changing Climate (jointly published by the World Bank, UNDP, UNEP, and the World Resources Institute). We took a distinctly new approach to research and writing this report, one that engaged a wide range of experts and practitioners from the very beginning, as well as one that tried new techniques. 

ImageOne important part of that new approach was to engage government officials, members of civil society and the private sector in two developing countries, Ghana and Vietnam, to participate in scenario exercises involving climate adaptation decisions. The goal was to learn how officials approached such decisions, how they would go about making them…and why.

The reason the core question is complex is the vast sea of uncertainty on the extent of future climate impacts. Between now and 2050, predictions in a 2010 World Bank report on the Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change, suggests that yearly rainfall in the country could plummet to 60% less than it is today or increase by as much as 49%.

Given that range of uncertainty between scarcity and abundance, how can the government decide how to manage future water supplies?  How should national ministries plan for a key sector like hydroelectricity generation? Increasing the supply and the reliability of electricity is key to Ghana’s development strategy − one-third of the country does not have access to electricity.

In the simulation exercise, the participants were divided into three groups: members of each group assumed specific roles that would be involved in a decision like this −Minister of Energy, Minister of Environment, CEO of the state electricity company etc. No participant took a role comparable to their actual position.

Groups were asked to decide, in light of a range of rainfall scenarios, whether to move forward with the new dam, postpone the decision to a later date, or cancel the project. A worst-case scenario gave about a 10-15 percent chance that future rainfall would be so reduced as to render the dam essentially useless. In the face of these uncertainties, and after several hours of discussion, all three groups reached the same conclusion−build the dam.

This research exercise and the one conducted in Vietnam led to some tentative findings:

  • Meeting basic needs is the key priority for most governments in developing countries and climate adaptation is not viewed as part of this equation.
  • Developing countries see climate change adaptation as a cost, not a benefit, and this colors their planning and decision making.
  • Long term climate risks are widely discounted or dismissed as “yet another study.”

In the real world, not in Suna, studies can’t be dismissed and climate change impacts can undercut development goals and put donor aid at risk.

What the WRR team learned, and what is central to this report is that national governments don’t need to be told what decisions to make. They need the information, capacity, and the tools to help them create adaptation plans and policies responsive to their particular situations.

The unique nature of the climate change challenge−not knowing the pace and scale of change, knowing that virtually every sector of society will be affected, managing the tension between the certainty of short needs and the uncertainty of the long-term−demands new approaches that will help national officials make effective adaptation decisions.

That’s what World Resources 2010-2011 is all about−the how of adaptation decision making…not the what.

(Read related blog in the Huffington Post here)





Philip Angell

Editor-in-Chief, World Resources Report (WRR)

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