As the reality of a changing climate becomes irrefutable and extreme weather phenomena occur around the world with more regularity, the looming question for all of us is; what comes next?
The truth is, nobody is exactly sure of the details. But experts do know that not all regions will be affected equally. And, according to Future Climate for Africa, the African continent will be hit hardest by climate change.
CLIMATE IMPACT: AFRICA’S BIG FOUR:
Before we look at the changes southern Africa will face, it’s helpful to know what all of Africa can expect. There are four key reasons why scientists believe Africa will experience the most drastic changes;
- African society is closely connected to the land; hundreds of millions of people depend on rainfall to grow their food.
- The African climate system is controlled by an extremely complex mix of large-scale weather systems, which, compared to almost all other inhabited regions, is vastly understudied. It’s therefore capable of all sorts of surprises.
- The two most extensive decreases in rainfall on the planet by the end of the century are expected to occur over Africa; one over North Africa and the other over southern Africa.
- Finally, the capacity for adaptation to climate change is low; poverty equates to reduced choice at the individual level while governance generally fails to prioritise and act on climate change.
It’s important to note that our understanding of climate change in Africa is disturbingly poor as a result of gaping holes in historic data and a lack of climate research in Africa. For example, there are more reporting rain gauges in the UK county of Oxfordshire than the entire Congo Basin. Nevertheless, many experts believe Africa is sleepwalking into a potential catastrophe.
What particular changes can we expect in the climate in southern Africa?
HIGHER TEMPERATURES, LESS RAINFALL
Unless concerted action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures may rise by more than 4°C over the southern African interior by 2100, and by more than 6°C over the western, central and northern parts of South Africa. This is according to models built by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Many towns in the Karoo are already experiencing a process of desertification.
The IPCC also projects these warmer temperatures to intensify existing precipitation patterns, with increases in rainfall in equatorial regions of up to 30% and decreases of 10-20% in southern Africa. There’s also a general agreement that extreme events (higher max temperatures, longer periods between rainfall, more intense rainfall) and variability will increase, but little certainty on the extent or precise locations.
VIRUSES, DISEASE + INCREASED HEALTH COMPLICATIONS
Global warming has already been implicated in the increased transmission of malaria, Rift Valley Fever, schistosomiasis, cholera and other diarrheal pathogens, and Avian influenza in South Africa. Africa is also likely to face new disease challenges caused by the impacts of climate change outside the continent. For example, the thawing of northern hemisphere permafrost will free long trapped viruses that will use avian migration to move across continents. Specific predictions are impossible, but the majority of infectious diseases that have emerged in the last 100 years have had a zoonotic origin (from animals). Health systems in and outside of Africa will face new challenges.
Climate change will affect water availability and potentially the quality too, which in turn, could have serious impacts on health. ‘If every person in South Africa has continuous access to water that’s clean and safe to drink and in the quantities needed, the health impacts from water-borne diseases, such as cholera, can be greatly minimised,’ writes Professor Rebecca Garland, principal researcher of the climate studies modelling and environmental health research group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). ‘However, the opposite is also true. If people do not have access to water that’s clean and safe to drink, the health impact from deteriorating water quality from climate change will be worsened.’ Garland also writes that exposure to high ambient temperatures, including those experienced during heatwaves, has been associated with increases in mortality from heatstroke, cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and respiratory diseases.
Food access is already an issue in South Africa given the existing levels of poverty. The situation is expected to worsen given that crop yields are likely to decline in several provinces, which would lead to a loss of livestock. To confound the matter, any negative impacts of climate change on the country’s economy will have major implications for food prices, which is largely contingent on affordability.
THE POOR WILL SUFFER MOST
Simply put: if an individual’s or household’s socio-economic status is robust, they will have a greater ability to withstand shocks induced by climate change. In South Africa, however, about a quarter of the population are unemployed and over half live below the poverty line.
According to the Financial and Fiscal Commission report from CSIR, the 20 most vulnerable municipalities in South Africa are rural, small towns and secondary cities. Their vulnerabilities are expected to increase due to the high levels of informal housing and the lack of efficient management of these growth areas. ‘Rural areas are particularly vulnerable due to their dependency on climate-sensitive resources such as water and an agrarian landscape,’ says Professor Garland.
Rising temperatures will also influence the habitability of some areas. However, the largest climate-related migration will likely result from poor farming opportunities, adding to the inevitable movement of people from rural to urban areas already underway and, to a lesser extent, to movement across national boundaries.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL ADAPTATION STRATEGY
Globally, the response to climate change is gradually gaining momentum as the impacts of climate change unfold. In South Africa, however, it’s increasingly apparent that delays in responding to climate change over the past decades have jeopardised human life and livelihoods. While slow progress, especially in the energy sector, has garnered much attention, focus is now shifting to developing plans and systems to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
The CSIR says it is critically important for planners and decision-makers to move from ‘reactive crisis management approaches’ to proactive climate change and disaster risk management approaches.
In 2017, the second draft of the South African National Adaptation Strategy was made open for public comment. This is a 10-year plan, which describes key strategic areas, with measurable outcomes. The implementation priorities for health are listed as water and sanitation, early warning systems for effective public health interventions during extreme weather events, and occupational health.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
While the effects of climate change will be significant, we’re not powerless. Technological innovations (more research in Africa by Africans, more investment in research, adaptive health systems) and smart governmental decisions can still make a difference. Ironically, a shared interest in climate solutions can perhaps provide an avenue for new forms of cooperation between African states and be the opportunity the continent needs to see the common humanity that unites us all.