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Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainable Development: Complementary Goals in Rwanda

Lisa Dale teaching in Rwanda
Lisa Dale teaching in Rwanda. Photo: Beth Kaplin

By Charlotte Munson

Sub-Saharan Africa faces substantial risk from climate change. More frequent extreme weather and inconsistent rainfall could strain agriculture and exacerbate food security challenges. But Lisa Dale argues that effective policy can drive stronger adaptation to these impacts, while contributing overall to sustainable development goals.

Dale, a professor in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development at Columbia’s Earth Institute, spent a month in Rwanda this summer to teach and research sustainable development and climate change adaptation. Awarded a spot as a specialist in sustainable development with the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright program, Dale was hosted by the University of Rwanda’s Center of Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management. She traveled to all four of Rwanda’s provinces to meet with stakeholders in the government, private sector, and civil society to better understand local issues surrounding climate change and sustainability.

With 80 percent of its population relying on rain-fed subsistence farming, Rwanda’s central issues pertaining to climate change are related to agriculture. Dale found that most of her conversations circled back to farming, and noted that Rwandans are enthusiastic about building capacity to better respond to climate change. Indeed, sustainability is already part of the national conversation; a nationwide ban on plastic bags, for example, makes the capital city of Kigali remarkably clean and is an important step towards waste reduction.

Shyaka Emmanuel of Greenfighters and John Mugabo of Millennium Promise at a panel discussion.
Shyaka Emmanuel of Greenfighters and John Mugabo of Millennium Promise at a panel discussion. Photo: Venant Nzihaza

Some of Dale’s conversations with stakeholders led to exciting opportunities for collaboration. For example, Thomas Bazarusanga is the country manager for ACRE Rwanda, a company working to connect rural farmers to crop insurance products. He has compiled extensive data about farmer participation and agricultural outcomes, but has little support to help him analyze it, much less put together an article for a peer-reviewed publication. This leaves Bazarusanga and his research largely removed from the international academic community. Working together, Bazarusanga and Dale were able to win Earth Institute funding for a Columbia undergraduate to analyze Bazarusanga’s data, allowing them to process ACRE’s role in the context of global climate adaptation. The two have now begun to think about future opportunities to present their findings. This partnership broadens the scope of Bazarusanga’s work and provides Dale with invaluable data, while also giving a student the chance to apply classroom concepts to a firsthand experience.

Lisa Dale with University of Rwanda graduate students after completing Sustainable Development and Climate Change Adaptation.
Lisa Dale with University of Rwanda graduate students after completing Sustainable Development and Climate Change Adaptation. Photo: Venant Nzibaza

Dale’s Fulbright experience continued at the University of Rwanda, where she taught an intensive one-week course for graduate students on sustainable development and climate change adaptation. Through building their understanding of policy and governance, students were able to identify ways in which successful adaptation to climate change contributes to sustainable development. With discussion topics including the differences between mitigation and adaptation, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, and international efforts to tackle climate change such as the Paris Agreement, Dale was able to incorporate research takeaways from her fieldwork to enhance the content. She assembled three panels of guest speakers to participate in class discussions, which gave students a chance to hear first-hand about the range of sustainability-related work underway in Rwanda. The guests also gave Dale the opportunity to gain further insight into Rwandan understanding of government structures, the role of civil society, and how the country is situated in the international context.

zebras in grassland
Zebras in Akagera National Park. Photo: Lisa Dale

This intensive course also helped Dale plan her Climate Change: Resilience & Adaptation class at Columbia. During the spring of 2020, a group of Columbia undergraduate students will participate in this seminar-style class, designed to give them a broad understanding of the relationship between the climate science and adaptive policy that helps to build resilience to climate change. Simultaneously, a group of students at the University of Rwanda will take a similar class with a member of their faculty; the two groups will correspond using electronic tools, sharing content and interacting as remote classmates. With support from Columbia’s Global Scholars Program, Dale and her Columbia students will travel to Rwanda in the summer of 2020 to meet face-to-face with their Rwandan counterparts. The combined student body will foster a powerful cultural exchange, and students will learn with each other as well as from each other. Two weeks of classroom time together in Kigali will culminate in what Dale calls “project-based learning.” In small integrated groups, students will work with local partners in the field to collect data, interview rural residents, and participate in longer-term local research projects. The results from student research projects will then be presented for the rest of the class and local stakeholders. Dale emphasizes that the benefits go beyond being strictly educational, as the class is designed to be “equal parts international exchange, academic study, and on-the-ground research.” Rwanda and Columbia students will live together, study together, and explore the region together through weekend field trips. After a month in Rwanda, Columbia students will travel together to Kenya, where they will debrief their experience at the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi.

Sunset at Lake Kivu
Sunset at Lake Kivu. Photo: Lisa Dale

Dale’s time in Rwanda teaching and conducting research has laid a solid foundation for a fulfilling study abroad experience. Undergraduate students from Columbia College, School of General Studies, Barnard College, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences interested in applying for the “Global Scholars Program in Sub-Saharan Africa: Sustainable Development and Climate Change” should visit the Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement website. Applications are due November 1, 2019.

Charlotte Munson is an intern for the communications team at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is a current student in the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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