Reflections from the Netherlands: Adaptation for Extreme Events workshop

By Saskia Homoet

A staff exchange from Stenden University in the Netherlands to South Africa gave me the opportunity to attend the workshop titled “Adaptation for Extreme Events”. The workshop was held on 29 May 2017 at the Postgraduate village of Rhodes University in Grahamstown and facilitated by Bettina Koelle (Red Cross Climate Centre) and Noel Oettle (Environmental Monitoring Group)

I had no idea what to expect from the workshop. In the Netherlands there are no events that can be characterized as extreme, apart from a rise in water levels or small earthquakes in the north due to the extraction of gas. These earthquakes causes’ cracks in houses and churches and are sometimes the cause of houses collapsing. However, when I reflect on these events I realize that when rebuilding the houses the contractors adapt the new design to mitigate the risk of future small earthquakes. Through this article I would like to report on how the workshop transformed me from a relative layman into half an expert.

The workshop consisted of about 25 to 30 participants and started with passing a fluffy ball to your neighbour for introductions and individually interpreting an extreme event. What struck me was the diversity of the group which included participants from NGOs, National and local government, local organisations, teachers, researchers, students, and a mix of age, race, gender with a variety of experience.
This playful introduction set the scene for the rest of the day, which was going to be active, full of games and also time for reflection. The playfulness did not mean that it was unorganized, on the contrary; it was very well structured and the objectives of the workshop were clearly communicated as well as the team contract which set out ways of communication within the group. The sharing of knowledge or experiences was stimulated which created a comfortable learning environment in which everyone’s ideas were respected and listened to.
The workshop content promised to be active and used a combination of games and theory as learning tools. Noel Oettle gave theoretical input into Complex Social-Ecological Systems, which was relevant in explaining why adaptation projects or proposals did not always work. (In fact, reflecting on a session during the Think Tank conference the next day, when Bettina Koelle asked those present at the conference if the adaptation projects they had worked on were a success, only one or two people raised their hands).

To visualize the complexity of such a system, the participants played the Collaboration game outside in the garden. The game involved everyone holding a piece of rope attached to a circle shaped cloth. In the middle of the circle a few balls of different sizes and weights were placed. As a team we had to make sure that the balls could roll round on the circle without falling off. This could be done by gently pulling the rope in up or down motions and in close cooperation with each other. This proved to be a difficult job; it showed that you need to cooperate closely and that clear communication is crucial. This still does not guarantee success due to various other factors that influence somebody’s behaviour or the system. Using this homemade circle was a very creative way to discover how systems may work.
An afternoon group activity illustrated what happens when your disaster preparedness is poor or non-existent through the Paying for predictions game. This was an interesting game for which we were divided into groups that were seated around a table. In front of each participant there were some beans and a dice. The beans represented money that you needed to invest to be prepared for the disaster. The dice represented the disaster risk. If you cast was higher than 11, there was a hazard, which only turned into a humanitarian disaster if you had not invested any money. There was a few times where people in the group were hit by a humanitarian disaster due to poor preparedness measures.
As a personal reflection, it was obvious that I had to prepare for any future events by investing money since this was the consensus in the system in the Netherlands, especially since the flooding of 1953 that killed more than 300 people. It was interesting to see the differences in attitude with people who did not want to lose money on the short term and after the game realized that they should have made long-term decisions.

The afternoon session included the Adaptation Clinic, a ‘Doctor-Patient’ game meant to propose solutions to an actual disaster in South Africa. A few participants, the patients, presented a problem and in a small group, the doctors would listen and give advice. In our group we discussed concerns regarding the drought in Cape Town, which had been declared a disaster area and water restriction levels 4 had come into effect.

Proposals from the “doctors” included, desalinization technology, transporting water from other areas, rainwater harvesting. This was a very informational session since it gave a good overview on what challenges the Western Cape is facing. The problem was unfortunately too complex to come up with a clear-cut solution. In contrast to this problem, the Netherlands prioritizes preparedness for a rising sea level and an increase in water.

The final activity of the day involved groups formulating a proposal for an adaptation project in the Eastern Cape within a period of three years, a budget of two million rand while identifying areas of collaborations. Our group proposed a vegetable garden project and it was quite difficult to reach an agreement within a certain time limit. This assignment showed how difficult it is to communicate clearly, understand each other’s views and to identify who to involve. Each proposal was presented in front of the other groups and scored on the project quality and feasibility by the audience. The scoring was visualized by stepping closer or further away from the presenters.

Through the workshop, I have learnt much more about mechanisms that play a role when setting up adaptation projects. Moreover, it gave me an insight into the problems that the Eastern Cape is facing, especially the challenge of involving local communities. It became clear from the workshop that often projects are developed without asking the local people what they need and want. Not enough time is usually invested in relationship building and strengthening.

The final activity of the day involved groups formulating a proposal for an adaptation project in the Eastern Cape within a period of three years, a budget of two million rand while identifying areas of collaborations. Our group proposed a vegetable garden project and it was quite difficult to reach an agreement within a certain time limit. This assignment showed how difficult it is to communicate clearly, understand each other’s views and to identify who to involve. Each proposal was presented in front of the other groups and scored on the project quality and feasibility by the audience. The scoring was visualized by stepping closer or further away from the presenters.

Through the workshop, I have learnt much more about mechanisms that play a role when setting up adaptation projects. Moreover, it gave me an insight into the problems that the Eastern Cape is facing, especially the challenge of involving local communities. It became clear from the workshop that often projects are developed without asking the local people what they need and want. Not enough time is usually invested in relationship building and strengthening.