Can a community harness climate change for positive change?

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time, but this massive problem presents an equal opportunity to transform struggling communities and society.  How we respond to these risk-laden times will ultimately determine if we’re in for a new Renaissance or a new Dark Age, or something altogether different.  This raises a simple but fundamentally important question, one that CFI grapples with regularly: how can vulnerable communities possibly adapt to drastic changes in their environment while also working to build a more hopeful future?  CFI’s rainwater harvesting projects in Pemba, Tanzania exemplify how communities can leverage the process of adaptation, at first glance a matter of sheer survival, to create a stronger, more resilient society.

Pembans live on the frontlines of climate change - on a tiny tropical island in the Indian Ocean.  Most Pembans depend on rain-fed agriculture, like most people around world do.  But Pemba’s climate is changing quickly now.  In a long-term analysis of 21 meteorological stations throughout Tanzania, Pemba displays one of the greatest decreasing trends in annual rainfall in the country [1].

Pemba Meteorological Station Annual Total Recorded Rainfall 1970 - 2010


When CFI forms partnerships with Pemban communities to improve water security we start by catching and storing more of this precious resource.  Despite the heavy reliance on rain for farming in Pemba, the UNDP estimates that only 0.6 % of the roughly 1.5 cubic kilometers of freshwater that falls on the island annually is actually used [2].  CFI provides gutters, cisterns, solar panels, UV purification, and basic training – technology that enables rural villages to tap into the drinking water that is all around them but traditionally out of reach.

Early Stage Rainwater Harvesting System - Kokota Islet, Pemba


In the case of Kokota, the remote islet where CFI first piloted its rainwater harvesting strategies in 2012,  the community quickly responded with a new grassroots governance structure - a community-based water authority.  This innovative community organization was unprecedented on an island of exiles, and now plays a critical role in ensuring that the newfound water resources are protected and distributed equitably. 

From this single adaptation effort, Kokota gained not only water security, knowledge, and empowerment but also improved governance and community cohesion. What other opportunites might there be to leverage climate change for positive change? 

Adaptation is not just a technical challenge; it involves our values and our culture.  What Kokota taught us is that community strength is the key ingredient to truly successful adaptation.  Without a strong social fabric all solutions are temporary and incomplete, but in a strong community the process of adapting to survive can actually lead to greater, more fundamental positive change. 

Take something that threatens to destroy your community and turn it into to something that strengthens its social fabric – call it climate change aikido – it's a leading example from Pemba that we need communities all around the world to start replicating. 

Now, how do we make that happen?


[1]  National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) for Tanzania, Department of Environment, April 2006 (pp. 15, 16).

[2]  An Assessment of Rainwater Harvesting Potential in Zanzibar, The Millennium Development Goals Centre, May 2007 (pp. 8, 9, 14).

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