Balancing complexity and simplicity: the challenge of (re)packaging science for decision-making and policy relevance

WISE-UP to Climate is a multi-partnership project focussing on natural infrastructure, water security and climate change adaptation in the Tana and Volta River Basins. Using an innovative approach to catalyse change on the ground, the project aims to demonstrate natural infrastructure as a 'nature-based solution' for climate change adaptation and sustainable development.

WISE-UP project logo Photo: ©IUCN

To tackle the ever present science-policy gap, WISE-UP holds Action Learning Meetings with key basin stakeholders twice a year in both basins. Recent Action Learning meetings were held in Nairobi and Accra, led by our basin partners, the African Collaborative Center for Earth System Sciences (ACCESS) in Kenya, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana.

These meetings allowed WISE-UP to present initial basin simulation results with participants. River basin system models developed by WISE-UP help to track river flows, reservoir volumes, and basin benefits such as water supply to urban and rural populations, agricultural yields, hydropower generation and eco-system services. Once linked to a ‘search’ algorithm, changes to infrastructure operations, for example, can be identified which maximise these different benefits, and navigate any trade-offs between them. For example, minor reductions in hydropower generation may allow for an increase in downstream river flows, bringing an increase to floodplain fishery catch and wider ecosystem service benefits in the Tana delta.

Built by gathering information through workshops and one-to-one meetings with key stakeholders in the two basins, these models aim to capture stakeholder voice and support better informed choices about development. WISE-UP aims to show how new infrastructure may affect the benefits tracked by the model under many different future scenarios, such as under different river flows due to climate change, and increasing demand for urban water supply as Nairobi and other towns in the Tana basin grow.

Availability and access to data continues to challenge modelling under WISE-UP. In the Volta Basin for example, existing data still presents gaps. The situation is further complicated by the transboundary nature of the basin. There are similar challenges in the Tana Basin in Kenya: although not strictly transboundary like the Volta, the Tana basin flows through 15 Counties within Kenya and the recent devolution of power and decision-making creates a complex governance structure. But the reality for science and research is that it has to deal with poor data and relate to ongoing decision making processes at the same time.

In the Volta Basin, WISE-UP focuses on Ghana and Burkina Faso, representing approximately 85% of the basin. Working with the support of the Volta Basin Authority (VBA) in Ouagadougou, WISE-UP is focusing on the proposed Pwalugu multi-use dam site as a case study in the basin. Initial results show dynamic trade-offs between hydropower generation, irrigation supply, flood protection and flood recession farming. Results sparked challenging conversations around the table in Accra. How, for example, prioritizing irrigation will impact flood recession farming further downstream of the proposed dam, and how costs and benefits are shared from an economic, and also ecosystem perspective.

Previous discussions with stakeholders in the Tana allowed for a simple opportunity to explore initial results including climate change considerations by providing a new perspective on familiar problems. Group exercises involved working with bespoke software for visualising and exploring data to better understand the impacts of different water management choices and investment decisions.

It is here science hits a major hurdle.

Complex results require explanation, time to understand and absorb, and time to react. As we look to tackle water and climate change problems using the power of a multi-disciplinary approach, so we must also look for new ways to communicate and present information. Preparing the data for an interactive workshop took multiple laptops, development of specialist software, over a thousand Windows updates on hired laptops, and some short nights for the WISE-UP modelling specialist.

Presenting the early results and working with participants to understand and interrogate them showed us that despite the demand for the information, and the utility of options for decision-makers to use, these results are complex – like the systems they represent.

Complexity lies in how to present multiple layers of what are effectively development choices. Considering trade-offs in river basin planning brings multiple challenges not just on different river flows, but also in identifying and considering the economic returns, the ecosystem impacts, the social consequences, and the increasing uncertainty around river flows the further we look ahead in time.

WISE-UP is working to untangle this complexity, but at the same time retain the integrity in the science and the details needed by decision-makers at different levels. It is this multi-disciplinary approach that makes the project so challenging.

We know climate change presents new challenges. WISE-UP is showing that how we adapt and respond to climate changes on our river flows is full of complexity, needing much better institutional alignment and joint multi-sector investment.

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Authors: Anthony Hurford and Evgenii Matrosov from The University of Manchester 

 

Work area: 
Business
Business
Climate Change
Economics
Ecosystems
Ecosystems
Energy
Global Policy
Members
Social Policy
Water
Environmental Law
Location: 
East and Southern Africa
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