For the International Day for South-South Cooperation on 12 September, we follow a pioneering, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-supported project that’s using nature to adapt to climate change in three ecosystems – the coasts of Seychelles, the mountains of Nepal and the deserts of Mauritania.
The Seychelles, a nation known for exquisite beaches and turquoise waters, has been described by some as a sinking paradise.
“Nowadays you can see the water coming higher. It’s climate change,” says Godfrey Albert, 48, a Seychellois fisherman from Mahe Island. “At this time of year, we’re not supposed to have rain and yet we have rain. Everything has changed.”
Beyond erratic rainfall, increasing coastal storms, and rising sea levels are eroding the shorelines and flooding people’s land. For a country where 80 per cent of economic activities occur in coastal regions, this poses a grave threat.
Gesturing towards the open sea, Albert shrugs: “I told you, man. It’s a hard life in paradise.”
These climate impacts are made even worse by the destruction of coastal mangrove forests that once surrounded many of the country’s 115 islands. Mangroves act as an extremely effective defence against coastal flooding and erosion by reducing the height and strength of waves.
The fate of the fishing industry, which along with tourism is the most important source of income in the country, is tied to mangroves. The forests provide a breeding ground for fish before going out to sea, and the organic matter trapped in the roots offer vital nutrients for many fish species.
Funded by the Global Environment Facility, a project worked with communities in the Seychelles – along with Mauritania and Nepal – to use nature to adapt to the impacts of climate change, a strategy termed ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA).
The project, known as EbA South, was executed by the National Development and Reform Commission of China, through the Chinese Academy of Sciences. By planting mangroves across the Seychelles, EbA South demonstrated how countries can build the resilience of local communities against storms and floods while improving local fish stocks.
The restored mangrove forests not only protect the land from the sea but also protect the sea from land by filtering out litter and sediment as it’s washed down from the mountains and into oceans. Without mangroves, the sediment covers the coral, killing fish and the local fishing businesses.
“Mangroves play a big role in the sea. They filter everything,” says Missia Dubignon, a volunteer of the Terrestrial Restoration Action Society of the Seychelles (TRASS) Trust, a partner of EbA South.
Volunteers from the TRASS Trust, a partner of EbA South, plant mangroves to reduce the impacts of floods and storms, to increase fish stocks and to filter rubbish being washed from the land to the sea. This multi-beneficial aspect is typical of EbA approaches. Photo: UNEP / Aidan Dockery
“Plant a tree, save a life,” says Dubignon with a smile.
From coasts to deserts to mountains
EbA South worked in three completely different ecosystems to promote knowledge-sharing: the coasts of Seychelles, the mountains of Nepal and the deserts of Mauritania.
In Mauritania – one of the most arid countries in the world – the climate is becoming hotter and drier, devastating water supplies and crop yields. Here, EbA South used nature as a defence by planting ‘shelter belts’, a line of trees or shrubs that protects an area from extreme weather.
The newly planted trees are shielding crops from wind erosion and desertification by holding together the soil and retaining moisture in the ground. Tree nurseries were constructed to supply the required trees, and trainings were given to local communities to understand which species are best for warding off desertification.
In Nepal, increased monsoon rainfall and decreased winter rainfall is leading to crop losses from both droughts and floods. The sponge-like properties of many tree root systems can tackle these impacts by recharging groundwater supplies during intense rain, and absorbing water into the ground during flooding. The community-based restoration was carried out by EbA South to protect crop yields, with over 840,000 seedlings planted.
In the Nepalese mountains, a tree nursery contains seedlings that will be used by EbA South to protect crops from floods, drought and erosion. Photo: EbA South
EbA South is seen as a flagship initiative for South-South cooperation – enabling an exchange between countries in the Global South in the form of technology transfer, capacity-building, policy support or fundraising.
During the project, China, Mauritania, Seychelles and Nepal regularly exchanged knowledge and best practices on ecosystem-based adaptation, including exchange visits to Mauritania and China. A web-based platform was built to facilitate collaboration – it contains webinars, case studies, an ecosystem-based adaptation planning tool and other knowledge products. Research programmes were established in partnership with local universities to advance ecosystem-based adaptation science and measure the effects of the project’s restoration activities. Thirteen scientific papers were produced by the Nepal team, seven by Seychelles and 11 by Mauritania.
This exchange of knowledge culminated in an array of publications and tools now used by practitioners across the Global South, such as the ecosystem-based adaptation planning tool ALivE: Adaptation, Livelihoods and Ecosystems.
A paper published in the journal Plants, People, Planet captures some of the key outcomes of the project. Other publications that emerged from the project’s work in South-South cooperation, include a Handbook for Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Mountain, Dryland, and Coastal Ecosystems, a resource guide for Integrating Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Education Curriculum and a reference guide to Research on Ecosystem-based Adaptation.
Speaking at a 2019 conference, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said, “South-South cooperation will be vital to ensure mutual support and exchange of best practices to enhance adaptation.”
From research programmes to on-the-ground restoration, EbA South demonstrates how to turn those words into action.