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Facing the unknown can help us shape the future

Colleen Magner
March, 2017


I’ve recently returned from Ongwediva, a town in northern Namibia where my colleagues and I are working on a project called ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions). Our work in the region aims to build the capacity amongst local and national authorities and communities to effectively respond to the increasing drought and flood-risks in the area of the Omusati Region.

We spent most of the week constructing scenarios about the future of water use in the region. The approximately 40 scenario members included traditional authorities, local and national government leaders, researchers and community leaders. Scenario team members spanned a range of organisations including the National Presidency’s Disaster Risk Management Unit, NamWater, Omusati Regional Council, Red Cross Namibia, Ministry of Environment, and University of Namibia amongst other organisations.

The workshop happened to take place during the week that Hurricane Dineo struck Mozambique’s coastline. The storms moved westward, resulting in continuous heavy rains during our time together at the workshop. It was a paradoxical experience, being in a desert during those rains, which would usually be characterised by extended dry, hot periods.

Northern Namibia in recent years has suffered serious set-backs in agriculture, livelihoods, employment, food and water security. Scientists across the board have predicted increased weather volatility and related vulnerabilities. Yet, many people in the workshop didn’t want to tell the stories of how these realities today might play out in the longer term.

We often find in these Transformative Scenario Processes (TSP), scenario team members struggle to stay with telling the stories of what might happen (rather than what they would like to happen). In my experiences of TSP, people who come together with such an unusual opportunity typically want to focus on solving the problems of immediate crises.  Or alternatively to create a vision for what could be better in the future.

As we went through the steps of building scenarios, the group worked through these impulses to solve short-term problems, and moved from focusing only on what they could influence immediately, towards exploring uncertainties out of their control. There was a slow recognition that our strategic responses could only be informed by a wider lens of the long term future. By the end of the workshop, the team had come up with storylines for four stories that aren’t easy to tell. There was some frustration from those who felt we should be talking about what we CAN control, and that we need to DO something with this opportunity! From this frustration, it became clear to me that this was a group of people who had felt first-hand the effects of climate change.

In this kind of work, even though the tension is exacerbated between the need for short-term problem-solving and the need for developing a more complex understanding of the longer-term, an important condition for keeping a group involved is that they have all acknowledged the impact of the shared challenge.  In this Namibian experience of facing a reality of overwhelming complexity, the group agreed that the current reality is unsustainable and unacceptable. This wider, somehow more detached, view seemed to offer everyone a deeper understanding of how, for example, uncertainties like water supply and management, cross-regional relationships, governance or politics, intersect and might influence their future.

The energy in the room by the end of the workshop was sobering and yet committed -  people felt exhausted after spending long days thinking about the unknown. We’re in the middle of this process, and will be meeting again in upcoming months as a group to strengthen the scenarios and to develop strategies to respond effectively should these futures unfold.  Facing the unknown future with a shared concern, open eyes and a map, the people of the Omusati region may well have a chance at changing the course of the future.

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