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Pathways to transformative climate adaptation in southern African cities

Durban river site visit (Photo credit: Alice McClure)


The population of southern Africa is increasingly concentrated in growing towns and cities. Just like elsewhere in the world, urban residents are in search of more secure livelihoods, more reliable and nutritious sources of food, safer living conditions, better education and healthcare. Yet many experience the hardship of a severe lack of public services, gainful employment, affordable housing and secure land tenure. This creates conditions of high vulnerability to climate hazards, including storms, high winds, heavy rainfall, intense heat, prolonged dry spells and drought, that in turn manifest as flooded homes, streets, markets, school and clinics, damage to structures and possessions, a lack of mobility, the spread of diseases, a scarcity of food and water and associated high prices. Projections of future climate conditions suggest that many of these hazards will intensify in many places across the southern African region. Consequently, there are mounting calls to transform cities in ways that foster social and spatial inclusion, equitable economic opportunities, environmental sustainability and climate resilience. But what does this entail and how can it be done?

This working paper*, from the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa(LIRA 2030) programme, presents a review of academic and grey literature addressing transformative adaptation, with a focus on cities. The paper details the current understanding(s) of what transformative adaptation is and what it entails. This is followed by a review of relevant literature that deals specifically with contexts of two case studies; Durban and Harare, with a focus on the domain of water provision and supply.

As cities located in southern Africa, Harare and Durban share a number of historical and social features that have shaped the development of these cities, and will continue to do so. Both cities are faced with the challenge of managing water, which will become more difficult as the variable and changing climate intersects with rapid urbanization. The difference in the extent of the adaptation agenda in these two cities creates a variety of opportunities for learning and impact that the LIRA2030 project seeks to leverage. Findings from this literature review formed the foundation for engagements with stakeholders in case study cites (Durban and Harare).

*Download this paper from the right-hand column. The text below provides a summary of the paper and the key lessons learned. Please see the full text for more detail. Note that references have been removed from the summary text – see the full text for references.

Conceptualizing Transformative Adaptation

In the climate change field, ‘transformative adaptation’ is a relatively new concept and as such the meaning is still being fully explored and developed. In broad terms, it is being used to talk about a way of addressing climate risks and impacts that challenges and changes the dominant underlying social, economic and political structures of society.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report presents three types of transformation linked to climate change that have emerged in the scientific literature:

  1. Transformative change resulting from the scaling up of adaptation, where each adaptation measure is of limited scope and impacts but the cumulative effect has transformative potential;
  2. Actions taken once the limits of incremental adaptation have been reached;
  3. Actions that directly seek to address the failures of development, especially by linking adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development.

Transformative adaptation usually begins with a catalyst that helps to initiate a new agenda; however, it is a range of catalysts, barriers, actors and implementation activities of which the relative importance may change over time, which subsequently interact at different points to advance or undermine transformative adaptation.

Transformative adaptation as a process that works towards shifting fundamental aspects of a system should integrate opportunities for inclusive dialogue and collaborative planning. Although these processes work towards a planning outcome (e.g. a strategy or plan), of equal importance are the learning opportunities introduced. Social learning processes raise general awareness, build a common, anticipatory understanding of current and future risks and opportunities, as well as provide room for critical reflection, information exchange, and innovation. Such collaborative, social learning processes contribute to building a more holistic, shared perspective of problems and solutions to manage greater complexity. They also support experimentation and rapid prototyping, which is essential for emergence in the face of uncertain climate change.

See the full paper for more on definitions oftransformative adaptation and how it is different from incremental adaptation, examples of transformative adaptation and concerns with and critiques of transformative adaptation.

The need for transfromative adaptation in cities of the global South

In urban areas – as built environments that are shaped by and shape people – it is important to grapple with the social, economic and political complexity that gives rise to climate vulnerability and in which adaptation measures are being implemented. Dealing only with the physical dimensions of climate risk and adaptation – such as more dams to deal with drought and water scarcity – does not address the underlying drivers of inequality and differential vulnerability. Issues of people, politics and power are placed at the heart of transformative responses to climate change, thereby filling the ‘gaps’ that are not addressed by traditional approaches to adaptation or resilience.

Cities in the global South are seeing unprecedented population growth that far outstrips economic growth, job creation, infrastructure expansion, property development and public service provision. Development paradigms that currently shape cities often result in disadvantaged, poor communities living on low-quality land, often within near proximity to hazardous features (like flood prone waterways) or polluting facilities. Urbanisation within this development paradigm perpetuates inequalities and, combined with the effects of climate variability and change, results in disproportionate impacts for poor and marginalised communities in cities. In cities of the global South, these negative climate-related impacts exacerbate the inequalities that persist from a history of colonialism and oppression. Questioning and disrupting the current development paradigm and power asymmetries in the socio-ecological system, as part of the climate adaptation agenda, is therefore particularly pertinent in cities of the global South.


The main barriers to transformative adaptation are cited as being an inability to work across sectors and scales to understand the problem and work on solutions in a holistic manner, and opposition by influential actors to alternative approaches and measures that challenge the status quo and undermine existing power bases. This points to the deep political, cultural, economic and organisational work that must go into taking transformative adaptation from theory into practice.

Enabling Factors

Having considered what transformative adaptation is and why it is needed, the working paper then reviews the literature for suggestions of what enables and constrains the realization of transformative adaptation. Enablers of transformative approaches to climate adaptation are suggested to include:

  • Informality, where innovation is driven by residents and civic organisations outside of the formal state-regulated, market-driven system that has failed to adequately reduce climate risks (e.g. building informal dwellings on stilts);
  • Focussing on integrating the perspectives and knowledge of residents living in intervention sites with that of technical experts, scientists, administrators and politicians;
  • Working to deeply understand and change those aspects of the existing system that generate and perpetuate climate vulnerability, recognizing and seeking to break or transgress entrenched path dependencies;
  • Building individual and institutional capacity to envision, explore and reflect on different adaptation pathways across the traditional silos of government, funders and financiers, civil society groups, businesses and academia, and across scales of local, national and global;
  • Redistributing power and agency to overcome the problem of powerful actors working to prevent transformative adaptation that they perceive to threaten their interests;
  • Building political will to undertake coordinated measures of a transformational nature in response to the threat of severe climate impacts;
  • Building and making accessible an evidence base of successful transformative responses to show they are ‘tried-and-tested’ thereby reducing the uncertainties relating to risks, benefits and costs of new / alternative options.

Many of these enablers point to the importance of fostering spaces for experimentation and innovation, requiring flexibility and responsiveness, while creating the institutional architecture to connect up, scale out and mainstream the initiatives that show success in reducing climate risks and distributing remaining climate risks more equitably.

Lessons Learnt

From the literature review it is clear that the two cities, while both facing considerable climate risks and impacts, are at very different stages in actively adapting to climate variability and change at the city scale.

Work in Durban on understanding and addressing climate change began in the mid-2000s and has grown over the years from technical concerns with biodiversity in the environmental management sector to a cross-sectoral and multi-scalar approach that frames climate adaptation as both a socio-economic and environmental imperative and proactively links the city’s agenda with international processes of driving climate knowledge and action.

In contrast, Harare is a city facing political instability, chronic infrastructure deficits and a struggling economy such that governance and resource constraints seemingly leave no room for addressing climate concerns directly. A few attempts have been made by international and local academic actors to introduce the agenda but with limited success.

Understanding the local realities of transformative adaptation will be explored further in the cases of Durban and Harare through interviews and Learning Labs as part of the LIRA2030 project, concluding in September 2020. To see the results visit:

See the full text for a summary of the findings from reviewing published and grey literature on climate adaptation processes in the cities of Durban and Harare, focussing particularly on addressing water-related hazards and impacts.

Suggested citation

Taylor, A., McClure, A., van Rooyen, L., Mubaya, C., Mamombe, R., Kushata, N. and Pasquini, L., 2019. Pathways to transformative climate adaptation in southern African cities. LIRA2030 Working Paper, June 2019, URL:

Further readings