Drought Watch

Drought in southern Africa a blessing in disguise?

Drought an opportunity?

The debilitating drought conditions that have taken hold of the southern African region could be a blessing in disguise, helping us to prepare for this unavoidable component of climate change.

Even if the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties, or COP21, starting in Paris on 30 November, secures an action plan to reach the target of ‘only’ a global 2°C temperature increase, many millions of people will still suffer the impact of global warming.

Climate change is already a reality, according to a World Bank (WB) report, Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, released ten days ago. In the first eight months of 2015, the world has seen more than 120 climate-related disasters. As we report elsewhere, the present drought in southern Africa is fast developing into another disaster.

Fourteen of the 15 hottest years since record-keeping began over 130 years ago have been recorded since the turn of the century.   

According to another just-released report by the New York-based Climate Central rising sea levels alone, caused by a 4°C increase in warming due to carbon emissions, could submerge land presently occupied by up to 760 million people in various parts of the world.

However, even if aggressive carbon cuts limit warming to 2°C, in a best-case scenario, still about 130 million people will be displaced. And coastal cities, South Africa and Mozambique will not escape this impact. Graphics on the Climate Central website indicate how large swaths of cities like Cape Town, Durban and Maputo will disappear under water even with only a 2°C increase in temperatures.

But the impact is much wider and the WB report warns that everyone, but the poor in particular, will feel the impact as weather extremes become more common and risks to food, water, and energy security increase.”

For South Africa and the southern African region this impact is presently developing into a lived reality, set to last for a while as a warning of things to come.

As also reported elsewhere, experts predict a period of record temperatures and generally low rainfalls, but also occasional monsoon-like storms. Challenging times lie ahead.

It can, however, also offer an opportunity to test existing disaster management systems and to develop future plans and capacities to deal with the fall-outs of climate change. And it can serve as an opportunity for the advancement of more climate-resilient development plans.

These include:

  • Developing technologies to recycle waste water and/or desalinate seawater and industrially contaminated water;
  • Improved food production and distribution chains;
  • Social support systems for the most vulnerable;
  • Improved infrastructure maintenance systems; and
  • Management systems and capacities to deal with inevitable domestic and cross-border migrations of large numbers of people.

The WB report states, among other things, that “between now and 2030, good, climate-informed development gives us the best chance we have of warding off increases in poverty due to climate change”. To this can be added: and to save lives and safeguard the quality of life.

This is especially true for South Africa and its neighbours. Most of the country’s neighbours, with their very limited industrial base, have very little impact on the pollution of the atmosphere and South Africa’s contribution to global greenhouse gas from energy consumption amounts to only 1% of the global total.

Globally speaking, it would seem that at least as big an effort should go into adapting to inevitable climate change as into mitigating greenhouse gasses. In South and southern Africa, as might be the case in many other developing regions of the world, adaption should receive greater priority when resource allocation choices have to be made.

by Garth Cilliers

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