National and local dynamics to climate change adaptation in Ghana

26 Mar 2015 - 17:15

National and local dynamics to climate change adaptation: reflections from ASSAR’s Ghana national experts meeting and visit to three northern districts

Written by Ahmed Abubakari, Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies (IESS), University of Ghana

As part of the West Africa Regional Diagnostic Study, a national expert meeting was held on 4th of March in Accra to introduce different actors to the ASSAR project and to solicit their opinions on the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) for climate change adaptation planning and implementation in Ghana. The project team also made a one-week visit to the Lawra, Jirapa and Nandom districts in the Upper West Region of Ghana to interact with individuals, in order to gain additional perspectives at the grassroots level. This article summarises the various issues discussed as well as concerns raised by the different stakeholders.

National context

In the recent past, the National Action Programmes to Combat Drought and Desertification addressed dry land management and the resulting vulnerabilities. The National Climate Change Policy of 2013 also gave a renewed commitment to climate change adaptation in the semi-arid regions of Ghana. However, major barriers to adaptation planning include limited communication from top to bottom, insufficient funding, inadequate data, a perceived lack of political will and agenda setting by international organisations. Enabling factors include the existence of various institutions and policies. This notwithstanding, traditional authorities are often marginalised or underrepresented in national adaptation planning processes.

Local context: climate change and vulnerability  

Lawra, Jirapa and Nandom districts are among the eleven districts in the Upper West Region of Ghana and are 770km, 746km and 785km respectively from the capital of Ghana, Accra,. These districts fall within the semi-arid region of Ghana with erratic rainfall patterns and high climate variability. For example, on 20th February 2015 when rains were not expected, Nandom recorded its highest rainfall in 20 years at 80.6 mm. Vulnerabilities observed are in terms of the long drought periods, with a major drought event experience in 2008, which affected cropping patterns and planning for agriculture. Wild fires, bush burning, indiscriminate felling of trees, and influx of pastoralists into the communities are common in these districts. As one stakeholder commented, climate change has “reinforced the spread of pest and disease (eg. Cirina forda) on economic trees such as Parikia biglobosa [Africa locust bean or Dawadawa tree] and Shea”. This has further implications on crop yields and, subsequently, food security. Adaptation planning by traditional authorities are spontaneous (i.e., issues-based planning) characterised by informal processes and inadequate documentation, with implementations usually through norms, taboos, and other agreed dos and don’ts.

Water conservation

Rainwater harvesting is largely acknowledged in literature as an adaptation strategy. Although there are concerns at the national level about the initial cost of investment, farmers at the local level have adopted low-cost methods for water conservation in agriculture lands. These include using mud as walls around cultivated lands. In Lawra, farmers built a wall under a bridge to retain waters, which could also be a source of mal-adaptation during flooding events.


Bush burning is considered by the farmers from the districts and stakeholders at the national level as a damaging practise, however, pastoralists have a contrary view, since burning creates favourable preconditions for new grass to grow for their livestock. As one pastoralist said, “When lands become very dry, the grasses have less moisture content, making it difficult for livestock to feed on them”. Pastoralists rather consider the untimely burning as detrimental, since new grasses that grow earlier or later than appropriate periods are not nutritious to livestock. One pastoralist suggested that, “controlled burning that takes place after early November to December ending must be promoted provided that farmers are encouraged to make fire belts for their farms”.

The complaint of pastoralists about climate change was the spread of diseases. Movement from place-to-place in search of food and water exposes livestock to frequent environmental changes within a very short period of time. According to one pastoralist, “as livestock move to drier places, they lose weight and the production of milk, which is directly linked to our livelihood, is reduced drastically”. In terms of human-livestock conflicts in Jirapa, in 2012 over 140 acres of maize farm was destroyed by cattle and some of the animals where shot. One pastoralist recalled that “there are times we [Fulaani people] are shot at if [we are] seen close to a farm by the farmer”.


National level stakeholders consider that the term 'gender' in climate change adaptation is usually misconstrued to refer to only women, which marginalizes other vulnerable groups such as the youth, elderly and disabled. However, at the local level, most stakeholders construed gender broadly to include women and other vulnerable groups such as the aged, children, and people living with disabilities. In Lawra, there are disability farmlands and each disabled person is given a portion to cultivate. Land tenure and other systemic issues such as poor cultural practices are key gender concerns for adaptation. According to the gender desk officer of Nandom, “climate change has reinforced gender roles in agriculture and as such women work like donkeys in farms but remain the poorest in Nandom”. In Jirapa, one woman noted, “most of the current forms of modern agriculture implements [tractors, etc] are not gender sensitive because they are complex, difficult, heavy and health-wise risky for women, children, the aged and disabled to use them”. Malnutrition is common among children in all the districts, however, children of rice-farming households of Lawra still work on the rice valley farms.


At the national level, the perception of stakeholders on climate induced migration was often branded as negative, considering the implications such as homelessness, rape, teenage pregnancies and other illegal activities that immigrants are engaged in. However, at the district level, there were mixed concerns regarding climate change and migration. According to the gender desk officer of Jirapa (a woman), “most returnees usually come back with HIV/AIDS, cholera and other diseases. Two cholera cases recorded in 2014 were returnees from the south of Ghana”. Participants in Lawra also raised similar concerns. Contrary to this opinion, a gender desk officer of Nandom (a man), narrated the success story of his junior sister who had travelled from the north to the south. According to him, a few years back in the dry season, his sister went to Accra and worked as a sales girl for a business woman. The business woman opened a bank account for her and started saving all her salary for her. Within four years, the girl went back to the north and started her own business. She currently trades in neighbouring countries and travels as far as Dubai. The gender desk officer used his sister’s story as evidence of how migration can create a precondition for livelihood diversification.


According to the stakeholders at the National Expert Meeting, the flow of information on adaptation from national to local level is very limited. Very few people, especially the farmers and staff of district assemblies, knew about the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP). For those who were aware of the NCCP, many had not seen a copy of the document. The few who had access to it, found its contents difficult to understand. Suggestions were made for a local glossary of climate change terminologies or a simplified version for local use. With the assistance of ESOKO (an NGO) in Jirapa, climate change information such as rainfall forecasts, planting times, preparation of lands, harvest times, and other dos and don’ts are communicated to farmers via mobile phones in all local languages. With a short code of 1900, a registered farmer of Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) platform can call for information at very cheap call rates. ESOKO sends daily text messages to farmers regarding weather forecasts, as well as prices of commodities. Non-literate farmers can call the ESOKO call centre for direct conversation in their local language. The farmer can also call for step-by-step instructions for any agriculture-related activity (e.g., planting, fertilizer application, preparation of lands, etc.) in the local language. Farmers can also report any agriculture-related information to ESOKO. The other districts (Nandom and Lawra) do not have such mechanisms for communication but rather rely on radio, hearsay, and workshops by NGOs.


Reflecting on the interactions with the national and local stakeholders, a number of issues arise. For one, there are some conflicts of interests among different actors, which could limit how adaptation practices can be scaled up. An example is the call for controlled or timely bush burning by pastoralists or no bush burning by farmers. If controlled burning could be adopted as a strategy, scaling it up to the district level could meet fierce resistance from some farmers. Similarly, the fact that one adaptation practice works in a particular district in the semi-arid region, does not mean it is applicable to other districts because of other systemic barriers and different conditions. Considering these limitations, the question is, at what scale (e.g., community, district, regional) could planned adaptation be effective?  

Secondly, there are inter-district variabilities of socioeconomic, cultural and religious barriers and enablers for adaptation. For example, it is culturally common in Nandom for households to have their farmlands around their homes (no-distance agriculture), but this is not found in other districts in the same Upper West region. In Nandom, culture could therefore place a limitation on scaling up activities for large-scale agriculture. With the existence of CCAFS in these three districts, synergies and collaboration among projects could improve responses at local levels. ASSAR, in this regard, has been able to take advantage of the CCAFS platform as an entry point for data collection and interaction.

The national meeting and the district level visits have enabled the IESS team to understand the different dynamics at various scales of adaptation: the barriers, as well as the enablers. The visits particularly gave us a feel of the real issues, which are a bit different from the way they are presented in the literature. These outcomes will help to inform the team about what kind of research approaches to take, and what questions to ask during the next state of ASSAR activities. 

Read about this event in Ghanaian news here and here