Flood walls and forests help Djibouti adapt to climate change

Near Omar Gona’s house in Djibouti’s Tadjourah city stands a wall three metres high and five metres thick. What might be an eyesore for some is a godsend for the city because the wall holds back the monsoon rains that have decimated people’s lives here for decades.

“In 1994, my family home was washed away by a big flood,” says Gona. “Since then, my family have always lived in fear of flooding and in the rainy seasons, we sometimes flee to the mountains leaving all our property here for days.”

Climate change is leading to unpredictable rainfall in Djibouti, with devastating droughts and floods both on the rise. For Tadjourah, a city on the Indian Ocean, the floods are wreaking havoc on infrastructure and farming, perpetuating widespread poverty and food insecurity.

With funding from the Global Environment Facility, the government is taking action to adapt. Supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the authorities built an almost 2km-long wall – technically referred to as a dike – to defend Gona’s Marsaki neighbourhood from the floods.

Such efforts were put to the test during the unprecedented monsoon of 2019 when, according to government sources, 150,000 of Djibouti’s 950,000 people needed immediate humanitarian assistance.

And yet for Gona’s Marsaki neighbourhood, which had been protected by the wall, every one of the 1,500 households were unscathed when the monsoon hit. In stark contrast, Palmaré, another Tadjourah neighbourhood without a wall, suffered severe damage.

“During the flood of 2019, I climbed onto the flood wall to see the other side. The water was rushing furiously with unbelievable power. It was scary. I saw then what my family had avoided.”

The success of the initiative has now led to the approval of a much larger, almost $10 million project in Djibouti’s Tadjourah and Dikhil regions. Supported by UNEP and based on a government climate adaptation plan, it aims to further expand  flood defence infrastructure.

Green-grey infrastructure

As with the ongoing project, the new initiative will complement so-called grey infrastructure, such as flood walls, with its oft-forgotten cousin, green infrastructure. Green infrastructure uses natural or semi-natural systems to provide similar benefits, but with positive long-term environmental consequences.

For example, the project will continue government efforts to restore mangrove forests on Tadjourah’s coastline, which reduce the height and strength of waves before they hit the shore, tackling the dangerous impacts of flooding and shoreline erosion caused by rising sea levels.

Experts say the practice of combining grey and green infrastructure to adapt to climate change is now rapidly spreading across the world. It helps to protect the environment and is more cost-effective than relying on grey projects alone.

This was highlighted in UNEP’s recent Adaptation Gap Report. It found that in Vietnam, for example, the restoration of 12,000 ha of mangroves has saved an estimated $7.3 million a year in dike maintenance. That figure is more than six  times the costs of planting the mangroves.

Tadjourah residents say the new mangroves have also boosted the local economy.

“The newly restored mangroves are bringing back the fish that used to live here,” says Gona. “We’re now seeing tourists coming to see the forests, which makes us happy because the local community can sell them tea and coffee to earn extra income.”

Thirty local community members are receiving training on mangrove planting to ensure the long-term sustainability of the project.

The use of nature-based solutions for adapting to climate change is known as ecosystem-based adaptation. UNEP is currently supporting over 45 such projects around the world, which are aiming to restore around 113,000 hectares while benefitting 2.5 million people.

To accelerate the expansion of ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA), the Global EbA Fund was launched by UNEP and the International Union for Conservation of Nature last month to provide seed capital to innovative approaches.

A new era for adaptation

The new $10 million project in Djibouti comes as the planet prepares for World Environment Day on 5 June. This celebration of the Earth also marks the official launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a 10-year, world-wide effort to halt and reverse the destruction of the natural world.

The Djibouti initiative is also part of a much larger global push towards adaptation as a core approach for tackling climate change. As shown in the Adaptation Gap Report, the number of global adaptation initiatives is growing at a considerable pace, with close to 400 adaptation projects financed by multilateral funds serving the Paris Agreement undertaken in developing countries since 2006 – half of them starting after 2015.

Crucially, at the Climate Adaptation Summit in January, the World Bank and leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte committed to vast increases in finance for adaptation.

“The lessons learned from projects like these in Djibouti will guide these new adaptation investments to protect as many people as possible from the ever-looming climate breakdown,” says Jessica Troni, Head of UNEP’s Climate Change Adaptation Unit. “The world is getting ready.”