Impact SA

The most urgent climate crisis-related risks facing South Africans in the first half of the 21st century


Risk 2: Shortages of clean water

Climate change will render South Africa warmer and drier, “since most of the world will get wetter as it gets warmer”. The guaranteed result, unfortunately, will be persistent, multiyear droughts.

“This implies increasing water security risks to eastern South Africa,” the GCI scientists note, “and in particular to the Gauteng province. This province, the industrial heartland of South Africa, is dependent on the eastern ‘mega dams’, and interbasin transfers (also across national boundaries) for its water security. Under climate change, multiyear droughts may bring a ‘day zero’ type drought to the Gauteng province, with far-reaching socio-economic implications.”

And yet, the Report continues, it is not necessarily “about going thirsty” – our global water supplies, which can never technically run out, just become “less and less fit for use”.

With the collapse of municipal and district water sources, sewage disposal, industrial production and irrigated agriculture all take a direct hit. Further, while water scarcity compromises power supply in the entire region – “for example, hydroelectric power from the Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams on the Zambezi are already affected” – the impact is felt most acutely in low-income urban populations, where there are no alternatives.

The adaptive solutions to water scarcity, the Report concludes, are not all that different to the solutions to food shortages – they involve a reduction in demand, increased recycling and the elimination of waste.

That said, while the South African Water Law of 1996 is “internationally admired”, the vested interests continue to take advantage.

Risk 3: A badly handled transition to low-carbon energy

Here, GCI’s scientists move squarely into the realm of the political economy. At the beginning of 2020, the Report notes, more than 7 million people were unemployed in South Africa; a further 3 million, mostly women, have lost their jobs because of Covid-19. 

“It has thus never been more important to plan for the transition away from coal, in a way that minimises job losses and protects incomes and livelihoods in South Africa and the region. This is what is meant by a ‘just transition’: fair not only to those immediately negatively impacted, but also to the rest of the economy and workforce, now and in the future, and to the health of the planet.”

The likelihood of the transition going awry is “expected”, the Report states, with the consequences being “substantial to severe”. It’s a given in terms of the international movement away from coal-based energy, with global climate protests driving the exit decisions of financial institutions and the coal companies themselves, that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in South Africa. The loss of coal export revenues alone, according to GCI’s sources, will run as high as R1.2-trillion by 2035. 

Still, while new wind and solar power plants will create jobs, the result won’t be a “direct trade-off with the jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector”.  Not only will most of the green energy jobs require higher-skilled workers, they will also “most likely be located” in the Northern Cape and North West provinces, where many of the renewable energy plants will be set up.

As for Mpumalanga, which will be hardest hit by the decimation of the coal industry, retrenched workers will either need to upskill and relocate – which “may not be feasible, or they will need to migrate to the cities in search of alternative work. Incoming migrants will further overwhelm “housing, healthcare and other public services”, with many ending up in informal settlements.

The solution, as articulated in the plan delivered by the Congress of South African Trade Unions earlier this year, is for “Eskom, government, coal mining companies and social actors, including trade unions and environmental NGOs… to collaborate, rather than confront each other”.  

But plans demand implementation, and nowhere will the reaction times of authorities be more critical than in the fourth cluster: “Heat stress is a killer.” 

Risk 4: Heat stress

“All warm-bodied organisms have a core body temperature of around 37°C,” the GCI scientists note, “and there is apparently no way to change this reality. As the air temperature approaches this number, we find it harder and harder to stay cool – especially if the air is humid and windless, we are in the sun, and if we are short of clean water to replace our perspiration.” 

Heat stress mainly affects two groups of people, those who do physical work outdoors and the elderly. “In other words, the health of millions of people in southern Africa will be under  threat on days of extreme heat.” 

Also, not only does heat stress lead directly to a loss of productivity, estimated at 5%, it exacerbates inequality between countries, and population groups within countries. 

The solutions involve structural transformation of rural economies, adaptation of clothing and equipment at the workplace level, adjustments in working hours, green spaces in cities and highly functional early warning systems. Perhaps because these interventions can only have a limited impact, the Report scores heat stress as “expected” with the consequences “severe”.

Heat stress mainly affects two groups of people, those who do physical work outdoors and the elderly. “In other words, the health of millions of people in southern Africa will be under  threat on days of extreme heat.” 

 Risk 5: Disrupted ecosystems and loss of biodiversity

The final cluster, “disrupted ecosystems and loss of biodiversity,” is where we see the most profound confluence of the work of writers like Eisenstein and CGIs environmental scientists.

“It’s like trying to put a key into a lock that keeps on moving. As the species get out of step with one another, the ecosystem starts to fall apart. This opens gaps for ‘weedy’ species to move in. The stability of the ecosystem, and the stream of benefits it provides to humans, is compromised,” the Report states.

In South Africa, one of only 10 “megadiverse” countries on Earth, the changing climate is expected to destroy “a very large fraction” of our biological diversity. This will have a knock-on effect that extends to the provision of food and clean water, the regulation of pests and diseases, and the regulation of the climate.  

The proposed solutions here are vague, yet GCIs scientists can’t be blamed for such vagueness. “Unlike minerals,” we are told, “[our biological riches] never run out if properly managed. Part of that management is protecting them from climate change and helping them to adapt to unavoidable changes.”

A reconstituted attitude to nature involves “enchantment” and “reverence”, which Eisenstein proposes can’t be measured in a lab. Put another way, if more of our ecosystems are obliterated to make way for more mines and Special Economic Zones; if we fail to see how our inflammatory rhetoric mirrors the various conflagrations in the natural world; if we don’t back up our legal and environmental holding actions with the type of inner transformation that only psycho-spiritual work can bring; we are destined for a hellscape of untold proportions. 

On this point, the poets and scientists seem to agree.


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