Virtual stakeholder engagement in Togo and Benin: Participatory research continues in times of COVID-19
It is well known that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed challenges on countries’ economies, lives and livelihoods. These immediate challenges may in some cases make it more difficult to focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and all their 169 targets at the moment. However, climate change is not slowing down and extreme weather events are not taking a break. Just last week, we saw the trail of destruction in Central America left by Hurricane Eta, at a time when coronavirus cases are increasing again all over the world. How can we turn the crisis into a catalyst to address climate change impacts and achieve the SDGs?
In many research projects UNU-EHS works closely with governments and affected communities on different topics related to sustainable development. That is also the case for the project on implementing CLIMate-sensitive Adaptation strategies to reduce Flood Risk (CLIMAFRI) in the transboundary Lower Mono River catchment in Togo and Benin. The CLIMAFRI project aims to co-develop and co-implement adaptation strategies to manage current and future flood risk and natural resources of the catchment. It intends to establish a River Basin Information System collaboratively by integrating science-based data with information and knowledge from local stakeholders and communities. The project, started in 2019, is already collecting information, knowledge and data by involving relevant stakeholders and communities in Togo and Benin.
As in many other projects, 2020 posed a new challenge to continue this important task and achieve the goals and objectives in a timely manner. Travel restrictions made it very difficult for the scientists to collect data from the flood-affected communities, as planned. “Originally, I planned to conduct a household survey in the catchment for 2 months, to collect information from local communities on existing risk management strategies and needs for flood risk insurance,” said Simon Wagner, PhD researcher at UNU-EHS. “However, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, this is not possible at the moment. Instead, I adapted to the situation by collaborating even more closely with our African partners to acquire this data on the ground.”
Floods are still occurring, and work needs to continue. Therefore, partners and stakeholders have joined efforts to find ways to continue the research without leaving behind the participatory approach, which is crucial for this project. UNU-EHS and the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL) organized two series of virtual stakeholder workshops, to work together with stakeholders from government organizations, NGOs and scientists from both Togo and Benin, to integrate different perspectives on flood risk in the Lower Mono River Basin. These workshops were organized as an alternative to an in-person workshop that was planned in May 2020 and later cancelled due to COVID-19.
Reducing risk to disasters is intrinsically linked to all of the Sustainable Development Goals. Big and small disasters directly affect poverty, access to education, health, gender equality, food security and many other goals, reversing development gains. While the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated some of the biggest challenges to sustainable development, this crisis has also taught us that no one should be left behind.
In the case of the CLIMAFRI project, COVID-19 has pushed partners and scientists to think out of the box and find other ways to work together. “Conducting these virtual workshops has been a rewarding experience for the project partners and stakeholders. The success of these two weeks of workshops as well as months of working together virtually have shown us that we can obtain important data and information efficiently in a virtual way, and that this approach can be even more inclusive in terms of participation,” said Dr. Yvonne Walz, Senior Scientist at UNU-EHS. Designing risk reduction strategies, especially those that involve the participation of the population, is of great importance. However, it is necessary to understand and consider the local context. “We have also realized that we need some follow-up discussions as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows, in order to also reach the local communities. A combination of virtual workshops and face-to-face meetings would be ideal in the future,” said Dr. Walz.
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