An African perspective on transboundary and cascading climate risks

Learn about how transboundary and cascading climate risks could impact different African regions, with a focus on East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa, in this Adaptation Without Borders discussion brief. Also explore the role of national and regional adaptation plans in managing these risks.
Multiple Authors
A body of water with brown settlements and a green tree reflected
Niger River between Konna and Tombouctou (Timbuktu) Credit: Maremagnum / Getty Images


“Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and climate variability”, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded as far back as 2007. But while Africa’s exposure and vulnerability to direct climate risks have long been recognized, the same cannot be said for the consequential transboundary and cascading climate impacts.

This brief looks at how transboundary and cascading climate risks could impact different African regions, with a focus on East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa. It then examines what roles national adaptation plans (NAPs) and regional adaptation plans can play in managing these risks. Finally, it makes recommendations for how the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) could use processes and programmes under the UNFCCC to push for support measures that better manage transboundary and cascading climate risks in Africa.

This article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

Transboundary climate risks: East Africa

When an extreme heatwave scorched India and Pakistan last year, Kenyan households felt the impact. Climate change had made this heatwave 30 times more likely. Similar stories could emerge for other cereals and for other East African countries. A recent study suggests that the East African Community (EAC) faces particularly high levels of transboundary climate risk to its trade in cereals and pharmaceuticals.

There are clear connections and synergies between Eastern African countries on which to build stronger and more transformative collaboration on transboundary climate risk. The following areas warrant further exploration:

  • further research into scenario-driven policies that account for transboundary climate risks, building on preliminary pilot projects, for example, under the NDC Delivery Lab commissioned by AGNES and CIAT in the Karamoja-Turkana/Pokot-Eastern Equatoria Region of the Greater Horn of Africa,
  • recognition and integration of transboundary climate risks, and proposals for their effective “ownership” and management, in the NAPs for each member country,
  • inclusive and equitable inter-regional cooperation to manage transboundary and cascading climate risks, and
  • embedding adaptation to transboundary climate risks into financing options by multilateral and private donors.

Explore examples of transboundary climate risks in East Africa in more detail on pages 2-4 of the brief.

Transboundary climate risks: West Africa

West Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to the direct impacts of climate change, but it is highly exposed to transboundary and cascading climate risks as well. For example, Mauritania, Guinea, and Togo have been ranked among the top 15 countries worldwide for exposure to cross-border risk.

Recommendations for building resilience in West Africa to transboundary climate risks include:

  • regional dialogues to co-develop a pillar under The Economic Community of West African States regional adaptation strategy that focuses on transboundary climate risk,
  • rejuvenated commitment to work regionally on adaptation across shared marine ecosystems and within transboundary river basins,
  • innovative applications of multilateral adaptation finance to support strategic grain storage and in region and other measures to build regional resilience to international food price shocks, and
  • leadership by West African states on the international stage to raise transboundary risks in international forums such as the UNFCCC and to reshape adaptation narratives around the shared global benefits of more ambitious adaptation.

Discover examples of transboundary climate risks in West Africa on pages 4-5 of the brief.

Transboundary climate risks: Southern Africa

There are many pathways that can lead to transboundary climate risk in Southern Africa. We provide a snapshot of just three of these pathways – trade, remittances, and river basins – that are affecting the region now and have the potential to do so in the future.

Recommendations for building resilience to transboundary climate risks in Southern Africa include:

  • in-depth analysis of vulnerabilities and dependencies, both outside and within the region,
  • diversifying exports and transport hubs, and reducing barriers to regional trade,
  • demonstrating leadership, engagement and flexibility in managing shared river basins,
  • strengthening cooperation regionally and globally to manage cascading climate risks,
  • financial support for developing and improving infrastructure, and
  • inclusive scenario planning that incorporates expert judgment, scientific analysis, and local communities.
Aerial view of buildings in Durban Harbor, South Africa Credit: michaeljung / Getty Images

Explore examples of transboundary climate risks in Southern Africa on pages 8-12 of the brief.

Key Messages

  • Africa is even more exposed to the impacts of climate change than has so far been recognized when transboundary and cascading climate risks are considered. Such risks are generated when the impacts of climate change in one country cascade into another. Flows of trade, finance, people, and shared ecosystems and natural resources can all transmit such risks.
  • National adaptation plans (NAPs) could play a crucial role in identifying, profiling and assessing the risks that a country is likely to be exposed to from abroad. NAPs could also identify how a country’s direct exposure to climate risks could create vulnerabilities for others, and where its adaptation actions enhance the resilience of others and contribute to the global public good.
  • National responses to transboundary and cascading climate risks could negatively impact other countries and regions: adaptation can create both winners and losers. There are opportunities for enhanced coordination and cooperation between the African Union, Regional Economic Communities, and Member States as well as sub-national entities in addressing and managing transboundary and cascading climate risks.
  • Transboundary and cascading climate risks call for a redefinition of adaptation and approaches that not only transform what is being done but also how adaptation is planned and implemented. A much greater degree of international cooperation is required to address these risks as well as the integration of cascading climate risk considerations in broader national and regional policies, such as security, trade and development, to build resilience and stability to climate risk in Africa.

Learn more about conclusions and next steps on pages 12-13 of the brief.

Further resources

  • Suggested Citation:Harris, K., Benzie, M., Lager, F., Lindblom, A., McAuley, S., Ababio, K., Mshelia, H. I., Lukorito, C. and S. Opitz-Stapleton (2023). An African perspective on transboundary and cascading climate risks. Adaptation Without Borders Discussion Brief.


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