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Thu, 18 Apr 2024 Article

Climate change makes life harder: in South Africa it’s likely to bring heatwaves, water stress and gender-based violence

  Peter Johnston - The Conversation
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South Africa is feeling the impacts of global warming. Heat is frequent and more intense. Human-induced climate change made the severe 2015–2017 drought three to six times more likely. But climate change also doubled the likelihood of the heavy rain that hit parts of South Africa in April 2022, which led to 400 people being killed and many thousands forced to flee their homes.

According to climate modelling studies and research on the impacts of extreme climate events, South Africa will soon be prone to more heatwaves, droughts and heavy rainfall. These disasters will have a cascading effect – they will make it impossible to end poverty, unemployment and food insecurity. Infrastructure will continue to collapse and inequality will widen. This in turn will worsen gender-based violence.

We are a group of climate scientists, most of whom participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2023. We all work in researching climate risk and vulnerability. Our new report on Climate Change Impacts in South Africa has found that as Earth warms, people living in South Africa will face reduced incomes, less food and water security and a higher cost of living.

South Africa is a well-resourced country, with a strong agricultural and biodiversity heritage. Our findings, based on a synthesis and review of existing research on climate change, are that climate change and socioeconomic risks threaten to bring about a huge change to this status.

How South Africa copes with these changes will depend on the response of all its people, but especially policymakers and planners. Combating the impacts of climate change in South Africa requires adaptive measures, such as changing the way we farm, coordination by the government and international commitment to reduce emissions.

Heatwaves

Daily maximum temperatures above an extreme threshold (more than 35°C on three consecutive days) are increasing in frequency, in all months, in many locations. Farm workers will be exposed to more extreme temperatures working outside and others will suffer from heat stress in their living and working environment.

On a local scale, human discomfort is set to reach the “uncomfortable, because it is too hot and humid” category for over 50 days a year for most of South Africa, and over 100 days in the Northern Cape, North West and Limpopo provinces. Life is harder when it's too hot to work and live comfortably.

Extreme weather threatens the plants and animals that attract tourism, and directly damages infrastructure at nature reserves, adventure destinations and parks. Rising temperatures are projected to reduce visitor numbers to South Africa's national parks by 4% by 2050, affecting the Kruger National Park most. Higher demand for air conditioning is likely to place stress on South Africa's inadequate power resources.

An agricultural crisis

South Africa has 40,000 commercial farms and 2 million to 3 million smallholder farms. Smallholder farms are often located in areas with less fertile soils or limited infrastructure, leaving these farmers more vulnerable to climate change. Arable land suitable for growing crops is concentrated in just 12% of South Africa's land area.

Farming in South Africa is mostly rain-fed. The more severe rainfall and drought expected with further warming will make water availability more uncertain, with consequences for food production in key growing areas. Lower production threatens food security and export earnings.

Extreme heat and more intense heatwaves are making arable land less suitable for cultivating crops and are posing a threat to livestock. Extremely hot days cause distress and death among animals. Hiring of farm workers depends on having thriving crops and livestock.

The employment situation is South Africa is already dire, with unemployment approaching 40%. The agriculture sector (fishing, forestry and hunting as well as farming) accounts for 21% of total employment. Therefore, any extreme event that reduces production – such as drought – can be expected to reduce job security and income for farming households and agricultural workers.

Water

Climate change is adding to the existing pressures on basic public services and infrastructure in South Africa. Drought and floods damage transport links, public buildings, and water and energy infrastructure, and challenge the provision of basic services. During the water crisis that followed the 2015–2017 drought, for example, reservoirs serving 3.7 million people around Cape Town dropped to 20% of capacity, leading the government to impose water restrictions.

Water supply and sanitation systems in South Africa are already hampered by a lack of maintenance and investment, with sewage flooding into the oceans. Increased temperatures threaten the natural degradation of sewage. When the seas are warmer and more untreated effluent is discharged into the oceans, it has a negative effect on marine life and increases the frequency of toxic algal blooms.

An increase in gender-based violence

Climate impacts are experienced differently by people of different genders, leading to a widening of existing inequalities in South Africa. These gender inequalities include a high incidence of gender-based violence and a higher likelihood of poverty among women.

Women are already more likely to hold low-skilled and low-paid jobs and they also undertake more unpaid care work, looking after children, older adults and sick relatives and community members.

Research in other parts of the world has also linked rising temperatures with an increase in gender-based violence. As well as causing physical trauma, gender-based violence is recognised as a mental health stressor in South Africa – where levels of mental illness are already among the highest in the world.

Solutions

Much of the country's economic future hinges on the speed with which investments in renewable energy can replace coal and provide affordable and reliable electricity.

Slowing down climate change will take a huge global effort and progress has been limited. The only alternative is to be prepared and adapt to the projected changes.

Peter Johnston receives funding from United Nations, NORCE, NRF

By Peter Johnston, Climate Scientist and Researcher, University of Cape Town

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