Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability through Integrated Social and Ecological Research in Sub-Saharan Africa: The ClimAfrica Project.

Africa has been identified as one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change due to, among other factors, its strong dependence on local natural resources and limited adaptive capacity. However, considerable uncertainty still remains regarding the particular impacts of such changes at local and regional scales, given the wide variety of climate regimes, agro-ecosystems and socio-economic conditions present in the continent. This diversity of scenarios has the potential to either moderate or exacerbate climate vulnerability because, as a growing body of research is recently suggesting, the social and ecological context in which climate problems occur can be as important, if not more so, than the climatic shock itself. In fact, history has shown that even relatively small environmental problems can cause significant consequences depending on socio-economic constraints.

 In order to design effective adaptation actions, it is becoming increasingly necessary to develop new multidisciplinary frameworks to allow a better understanding of the implications of climate change on local livelihoods and ecosystems. In this sense, a key conceptual shift in recent years has been the assumption that to effectively address climate change and other environmental problems, new approaches must be based on integrating ecological and socio-economic research. These studies, based on considering humans not just as external drivers of natural ecosystems but also as affected agents within the social-ecological system, would potentially be able to reveal important interactions, feedbacks and dynamics that cannot be revealed by ecological and social research alone. This kind of research, however, has been traditionally hindered by the complexity of integrating such differing conceptual frameworks and methodologies.

In the framework of the European Union funded CLIMAFRICA project, a coordinated multisite case study is being carried out in nine study areas distributed across a spanning climate gradient and encompassing a wide range of African agro-ecosystems and socio-ecological dynamics. The list of countries where the study areas are located includes Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Togo, the Republic of Congo and Sudan. In each study area, the main soil, agricultural and vegetation characteristics are assessed through a stratified-random survey in which drivers at regional; landscape and local scales are considered. Socio-economic characteristics are assessed through a combination of focus group discussions, semi-structured household surveys and secondary information sources.

Results of this collaborative study will not only provide information on the degree to which important biophysical parameters such as soil organic carbon stocks, crop yield, primary productivity or plant diversity may be affected by climate change; but will also provide important insights into how livelihoods are linked to local natural resources and how human communities view climate change and have experienced and responded to it in the past, thereby contributing to the understanding of how these systems are vulnerable to climate variability and change.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 244240 – ClimAfrica Project.


Lead Investigator: 
Sub-Saharan Africa