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What climate change means for South Africa and its people

Researchers at UCT have recently released a synthesis report highlighting the potential impact of climate change in South Africa and how these changes will impact our economy and ecosystems. <b>Photo</b> Supplied.

A new climate change impact synthesis report titled, “Climate change impacts in South Africa: What climate change means for a country and its people”, highlights the impacts of climate change on South Africa and the cascading effect these changes may have on people’s lives. The report was compiled by Dr Peter Johnston, Dr Temitope Egbebiyi, Luckson Zvobogo, Dr Sabina Abba Omar, Anton Cartwright and Prof Bruce Hewitson, climate change researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

While South Africa faces many social and economic challenges, such as food insecurity and high unemployment rates, agriculture and biodiversity remain vital assets of the country. Agricultural exports and ecotourism are significant contributors to the South African economy, while small-scale farming plays a vital role in supporting a substantial portion of the population. Climate change threatens these assets with increased frequency and intensity of droughts, heatwaves and severe flooding in some parts of the country. These extreme weather events are likely to damage crops and infrastructure, and threaten plants and animals that attract tourism. The impacts of climate change are likely to affect livelihoods, food and water security and ultimately increase the cost of living for South Africans.

causes of climate change in south africa essay

“South Africa is a well-resourced country, with a strong agricultural and biodiversity heritage. 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 policy makers and planners,” explained Dr Peter Johnston from the UCT Climate System Analysis Group.

Building resilience

Small-scale and commercial farmers alike acknowledge the threat of climate change to their lives and farms, with adaptation strategies ranging from soil carbon enhancement to indigenous rainwater harvesting. While these efforts have mitigated some impacts, there’s concern that they may not be enough under future climate scenarios, especially for small-scale farmers. Small-scale farmers face greater vulnerability due to structural barriers like limited access to finance and infrastructure. Addressing climate change through nature-smart initiatives could simultaneously tackle inequality, poverty, and infrastructure failures, complementing slow-moving state-led reform programmes.

“Climate impacts and extreme weather events affect different people in different ways, but we have to collectively respond to make ourselves adapt. To farmers, crops are important; to insurers, payouts are important; and to a man living in an informal settlement, his house matters, but we all have to work together to address the crisis,” said Luckson Zvogbo, a postdoctoral research fellow at UCT’s African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI).

South Africa’s role in international climate negotiations

The growing severity, however, of climate change depends on the ability of the world to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa’s economic trajectory heavily relies on the swift transition from coal to solar and wind energy to ensure affordable and dependable electricity. Additionally, South Africa advocates for a “just transition” in international climate talks, emphasising social justice and urging high-income nations to fund decarbonisation efforts and address climate-related impacts in middle- and low-income countries, with national emission targets set accordingly.

“South Africa has led calls for a ‘just transition’ in international climate negotiations – a process of putting people and livelihoods at the centre of climate responses. Given the contribution of the agricultural and conservation sectors to employment creation in South Africa, climate responses in these sectors form an important part of the country’s just transition,” explained Anton Cartwright, the director at Econologic.

Combating the impacts of climate change requires both adaptive measures (eg adaptive farming practices) as well as governmental coordination and international commitment to reduce emissions.

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Climate Change in Southern Africa – A position paper

https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000129074/download/

Climate extremes are a major impediment to resilience of food systems in Southern Africa, where livelihoods and economies are highly sensitive to weather fluctuations. While the region boasts an incredible diversity of ecosystems, natural resources, economic activities and cultures, it is also characterized by rapid population growth, urbanization of coastal areas, encroachment into ecologically marginal areas and poverty. The primary source of income for the region’s rural population remains agriculture, much of it rainfed and allocated to cereal production. The region’s uneven distribution of resources and changing climate dynamics pose significant challenges as well as considerable opportunities for cooperation across the countries of Southern Africa. This position paper builds a case for climate action in Southern Africa by WFP and its partners with key insights from regional leaders which were recorded during a regional climate symposium. The position paper is backed up by scientific data and forecast by CIAT.

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South Africa: Integrating Development and Climate Goals Requires a Transition that is Low-Carbon, Climate-Resilient, and Just

PRETORIA, November 1, 2022 — South Africa can build a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economy while simultaneously responding to climate change, says the World Bank’s Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR) launched today with South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission. The report highlights key policies and investments needed to achieve South Africa’s climate goals through a “triple transition” that is low-carbon, climate-resilient and just.

By implementing a low-carbon transition that aims to significantly lower emissions of greenhouse gases, South Africa can harness investments in new technologies to help resolve the protracted energy crisis. Low-carbon growth trajectory will also help strengthen country’s competitiveness, and reduce local air, water, and soil pollution that negatively impacts people, the environment, labor productivity, and food and water security.

“ Renewables are among the cheapest and quicker solutions to increase electricity supply and reduce the strain on existing generation capacity.  Adding more power to the grid is needed to address the chronic deficit of power generation that leads to rolling blackouts, harming productivity and economic growth, ” says Marie-Francoise Marie-Nelly, World Bank’s Country Director for South Africa.

Second, achieving a climate-resilient transition will be essential to mitigating the impact of climate change on South Africa’s agriculture, cities, infrastructure, and people. Increasing climate shocks such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves are especially disruptive in coastal cities, poor agricultural provinces, and the underdeveloped peri-urban areas of the main metropolitan centers—which are home to the majority of the country’s people and the location of most of its economic activity. Road transport is relatively resilient but some provincial and rural areas will require attention. Priority should be given to investments that will not only increase resilience but also lower greenhouse gas emissions, such as investments in irrigation, agronomic practices, sustainable land management, and ecosystem restoration.

Third, supporting a just transition will be essential given that poor people are both more exposed to climate risks and less able to cope with them. The CCDR estimates that for each job eliminated in the shift to a low-carbon economy, two to three jobs could be created between 2022 and 2050. The challenge is that these new jobs will not necessarily emerge in the same timeframe, nor in the same sectors and locations, requiring joint public-private interventions to develop new skills within the workforce and facilitate movements across the labor market. By strengthening social assistance, labor market intermediation, and reskilling and upskilling programs, South Africa can better support workers during the transition. More support is also needed for micro-, small, and medium enterprises and for self-employed businesses (in both the formal and informal sectors). A holistic approach is required immediately in Mpumalanga, the province most affected by the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

Achieving these three transitions will require substantial external financing and a combination of structural reforms, including a more flexible labor market, and improvements in fiscal and financial policies. According to the CCDR estimates the three transitions could cost around R8.5 trillion (about $500 billion in net present value) between 2022 and 2050, of which R2.4 trillion ($140 billion) would be needed before 2030. Large concessional inflows and grants from the international community are needed to assist South Africa to transform its economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The country also needs a better regulatory framework for private capital.

“ Private financing will have an important role to play, including through reforms in the domestic financial market and in the private-public partnership framework, ” says Adamou Labara, IFC Country Manager for South Africa .

“As we work toward implementing our ambitious climate objectives, the difficult question remains how we uplift people and communities in the transition to a low emissions economy and ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable are not left behind as we resolve the tripartite challenges of inequality, poverty, and unemployment,”  says  Dr. Crispian Olver, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Commission . “ This report calls upon all of us to spur change, and build solid social compact, building-in just transition principles and practices into climate policy and planning. The findings are an important contribution and an early quantification of the investment costs in building climate resilience and implementing measures to mitigate the risks we face.”

About Country Climate and Development Reports (CCDRs)

The World Bank Group’s Country Climate and Development Reports (CCDRs) are new core diagnostic reports that integrate climate change and development considerations. They will help countries prioritize the most impactful actions that can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and boost adaptation, while delivering on broader development goals. CCDRs build on data and rigorous research and identify main pathways to reduce GHG emissions and climate vulnerabilities, including the costs and challenges as well as benefits and opportunities from doing so. The reports suggest concrete, priority actions to support the low-carbon, resilient transition. As public documents, CCDRs aim to inform governments, citizens, the private sector and development partners and enable engagements with the development and climate agenda. CCDRs will feed into other core Bank Group diagnostics, country engagements and operations, and help attract funding and direct financing for high-impact climate action.

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Impacts of Climate Change on Health and Wellbeing in South Africa

Matthew f. chersich.

1 Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa; az.ca.ihrw@retneVF (F.V.); az.ca.ihrw@seerh (H.R.); az.ca.ihrw@eigrocSF (F.S.)

Caradee Y. Wright

2 Environment and Health Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council and Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, Hatfield, Private Bag X200028, South Africa; [email protected]

Francois Venter

Fiona scorgie, barend erasmus.

3 Global Change Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa; [email protected]

Associated Data

Given its associated burden of disease, climate change in South Africa could be reframed as predominately a health issue, one necessitating an urgent health-sector response. The growing impact of climate change has major implications for South Africa, especially for the numerous vulnerable groups in the country. We systematically reviewed the literature by searching PubMed and Web of Science. Of the 820 papers screened, 34 were identified that assessed the impacts of climate change on health in the country. Most papers covered effects of heat on health or on infectious diseases (20/34; 59%). We found that extreme weather events are the most noticeable effects to date, especially droughts in the Western Cape, but rises in vector-borne diseases are gaining prominence. Climate aberration is also linked in myriad ways with outbreaks of food and waterborne diseases, and possibly with the recent Listeria epidemic. The potential impacts of climate change on mental health may compound the multiple social stressors that already beset the populace. Climate change heightens the pre-existing vulnerabilities of women, fishing communities, rural subsistence farmers and those living in informal settlements. Further gender disparities, eco-migration and social disruptions may undermine the prevention—but also treatment—of HIV. Our findings suggest that focused research and effective use of surveillance data are required to monitor climate change’s impacts; traditional strengths of the country’s health sector. The health sector, hitherto a fringe player, should assume a greater leadership role in promoting policies that protect the public’s health, address inequities and advance the country’s commitments to climate change accords.

1. Introduction

The question of how to tackle the ecological determinants of health is poised to become the signature public health issue of the coming decade in South Africa, in much the same way that HIV took centre stage in the preceding decades. Rapid environmental changes are creating observable effects in multiple domains, from air quality, temperature and weather patterns, to food security and disease burden [ 1 ]. Ambient air pollution is estimated to have been responsible for 4% of deaths in South Africa in 2015 [ 2 ]. Even though there is some spatial variation in the warming signal, most of South Africa has experienced upward trends in temperature during the last half of the 20th century [ 3 , 4 ]. Food security is also under threat, with, for example, crop yields likely to decline in many parts of the country, accompanied by livestock losses [ 5 ]. Furthermore, it is now possible to detect changes in response to climate change in most terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems in the country [ 6 , 7 , 8 ]. Species are changing genetically, physiologically and morphologically, and their distribution is shifting, which affects food webs, and foments transmission of infectious diseases [ 9 ].

In South Africa, despite policies promoting an ambitious renewable energy programme, the country’s response to climate change has been hampered by policy uncertainty and corruption, especially in the energy and transport sectors, and its health systems are ill-prepared for the effects of climate aberration [ 10 ]. The new National Climate Change Bill, which is currently open for public comment shows promise, however. Its provisions for coordination among different government departments have the potential to remove policy uncertainty, and align related policies [ 11 ].

This article summarises evidence of the impact of climate change on health in South Africa and highlights specific effects on vulnerable populations. The review covers the direct impacts on health through extreme events and temperature increases, but also the more indirect impacts mediated through natural systems (for example infectious diseases) and through social vulnerabilities [ 12 ]. While several narrative reviews have summed the impacts of climate change on health in South Africa [ 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 ], there is a need to review more up to date literature and to collate evidence in a systematic manner.

2. Review Methods

Medline (PubMed) and Web of Science were searched on 8 August 2018 ( Supplementary File 1 : review protocol). The PubMed search strategy included free text terms and MeSH codes, specifically: (((((“South Africa”[MeSH]) OR (“South Africa”[Title/Abstract]) OR (“Southern Africa*“[Title/Abstract]))) AND “last 10 years”[PDat])) AND (((“global warming”[Title/Abstract] OR “global warming”[MeSH] OR climatic*[Title/Abstract] OR “climate change”[Title/Abstract] OR “climate change”[MeSH] OR “Desert Climate”[MeSH] OR “El Nino-Southern Oscillation”[MeSH] OR Microclimate[MeSH] OR “Tropical Climate”[MeSH])). A total of 820 titles and abstracts were screened by a single reviewer after removal of 34 duplicate items ( Figure 1 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is ijerph-15-01884-g001.jpg

PRISMA Flow diagram for review of articles on impact of climate change in South Africa [ 17 ].

To be included, articles had to describe the impact of climate change on health in South Africa. All study designs were eligible, including modelling studies, narrative and systematic reviews, case studies, case series and qualitative research. We excluded articles that were not in English ( n = 3), only covered animals or plants ( n = 343), were not on South Africa ( n = 270), were unrelated to health ( n = 47) or climate change ( n = 55), or were on climate change adaptation ( n = 38) or mitigation ( n = 30). We then screened full text articles for eligibility ( n = 86), of which 34 were included. We then extracted data on the characteristics of the included articles ( Table 1 ). The findings presented in each included article were used to draft the text of the review. We also included additional articles located through searches of article references or through targeted internet searches for policy documents, for example.

Characteristics of studies included in the review.

N/A: not applicable.

A quarter of the articles included South Africa and another country (8/34; 24%; Table 1 ). Fully 41% of the papers were narrative reviews or editorials (14/34). A further 29% were modelling studies (10/34). Only one article was located that applied qualitative methods. One quarter addressed the effects of heat on health in the country (9/34; 26%), while a third investigated the impact of climate change on infectious diseases (11/34; 32%). Six of these 11 papers addressed malaria. Below, we present a summary of the key findings from the literature reviewed.

3.1. Direct Effects of Temperature Rises and Eextreme Weather

Observed rates and modelled projections indicate that warming over southern Africa is happening at twice the global rate [ 48 ]. Unless concerted international action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures may rise more than 4 °C over the southern African interior by 2100, with increases of more than 6 °C over large the western, central and northern parts of the country, which have faced several years of droughts [ 30 , 49 ]. Relative to a 1981–2000 base period, the probability of summer heat waves over South Africa has increased by over 3.5 fold [ 50 ]. Impacts of heat waves differ from the more insidious, but no less harmful, rises in heat that increasingly cause heat-related symptoms during Summer, but also in Spring and Autumn in some parts of the country [ 30 ].

An analysis using national mortality and temperature data for each district of the country over 17 years found that temperature-related mortality (from cold or hot spells) accounts for 3.4% of deaths in South Africa [ 51 ]. Those at extremes of age are most vulnerable, given their reduced thermoregulatory ability, as well as more limited mobility and resources to adjust to extreme temperatures. A study pooling data from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, calculated that for every 1 °C rise, overall mortality escalates by 1% and by 2% in those aged above 65 years [ 52 ]. Heat exposures also hold particular dangers for pregnant women and the developing foetus, a concern given the already high levels of maternal and infant mortality in the country [ 53 , 54 ].

As temperatures rise, the levels of risk from occupational heat may increase from ‘low risk’ to ‘moderate or high risk’, especially in the mining, agriculture and outdoor service sectors [ 32 ]. A seminal study in the mid-20th century of > 200,000 underground miners in South Africa reported a mortality rate of 3.3 deaths/year/1000 miners if the temperature exceeded 34 °C, compared to 0.7 deaths/year/1000 miners when temperatures were between 31 and 33 °C [ 55 ]. Outdoor workers in Upington, one of the hottest part of the country, frequently experience heat-related effects, including sunburn, sleeplessness, exhaustion and reduced productivity [ 36 ]. At the time of the study, few, if any, measures had been taken to reduce these effects.

Impacts of heat in the domestic environment are also important to consider [ 56 ]. Low-cost government-built housing in South Africa and informal settlement houses (mostly made of sheets of corrugated iron, bricks, wood and plastic) are poorly insulated against heat and cold. During hot weather these structures may be 4–5 °C warmer than outdoor temperatures and cooler during cold spells by the same magnitude [ 39 , 40 , 57 ]. Replacing informal settlement housing with formal brick and cement housing could reduce heat-related mortality by as much as a half [ 40 ]. Similarly, many school classrooms in the country are constructed of prefabricated asbestos sheeting with corrugated iron roofing, are overcrowded and lack ceiling fans [ 23 ]. Temperatures in these structures often exceed 30 °C and heat-health related symptoms are commonplace [ 23 ]. Equally concerning is the evidence that temperatures in many waiting rooms in public-sector health facilities are dangerously high. A study of eight rural clinics found that the temperature in these clinics was as much as 4 °C higher than outdoors, reaching temperature ranges associated with heat-health impact warning categories of ‘caution’ and ‘extreme caution’ [ 47 ]. In addition, already vulnerable inner-city areas, such as Hillbrow, Johannesburg [ 58 ] constitute urban ‘heat islands’, where temperatures can exceed that of sub-urban areas by several degrees [ 59 ].

Climate change is also projected to increase the frequency and severity of storms and flooding in the country [ 60 ]. The effects of these extend beyond mortality alone, and include injuries, food and water insecurity, spread of disease and mental health conditions [ 61 ].

3.2. Indirect Effects of Climate Change on Infectious Diseases

Temperature increases have sizable implications for the transmission of vector-borne diseases. Rises in temperature as well as precipitation changes have been linked with malaria spikes, especially in Limpopo province [ 21 , 33 ]. These spikes often occur around two months after warmer temperatures and high precipitation have occurred in neighboring countries [ 28 ]. The projected changes in climate in South Africa will favor the survival of the malaria vector Anopheles arabiensis , while its distribution may decline in many other parts of Africa [ 19 , 25 , 43 ]. The effects of climate variability are especially notable with Rift Valley Fever, which mostly affects the semi-desert Karoo biomes during strong La Nina years, but then during El Nino episodes shifts to the central grassland areas of South Africa [ 52 , 62 ]. Changes in the distribution of the disease vectors Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus have raised the likelihood of transmission of dengue fever, Zika and other infections in the region [ 61 ]. The Avian influenza epidemic in South Africa in 2017, attributed, in part, to climate change, [ 63 ] threatens poultry food sources, among other things. Warming may also alter the distribution, breeding and survival of the snail species implicated in schistosomiasis, whose choice of habitat is highly sensitive to water temperature [ 29 ].

Importantly, climate change impacts on the persistence and dispersal of water- and food-borne pathogens in a myriad of ways. Droughts and high precipitation worsen water quality, and hamper hand washing and other hygiene practices [ 64 , 65 ]. Bacterial pathogens multiply faster in higher temperatures, which also can result in breakdowns in food cooling chains. A study in children under-five in Cape Town noted that a 5 °C rise in minimum weekly temperatures increased cases of diarrhoea by 40% one week thereafter [ 37 ]. These findings echo a similar study in Limpopo [ 42 ]. An escalation in sea-surface temperature was linked to a cholera outbreak in 2000–2001 in KwaZulu-Natal, possibly stemming from an increased abundance of phytoplankton and thus higher numbers of copepods (small crustaceans commensal to cholera) that feed on these organisms [ 66 ].

Listeria monocytogenes, recently responsible for a major epidemic across South Africa, appears to be particularly climate sensitive, with occurrences rising with temperature spikes [ 24 , 67 , 68 ]. In food processing plants, water scarcity hampers efforts to clean food-processing machines. Scarcity may also shift the sources of water used for agriculture and domestic purposes, raising exposure to Listeria and other pathogens in South Africa [ 27 , 69 ].

3.3. Indirect Effects of Climate Change on Mental Health

The mental health impacts of extreme weather may compound the multiple health and social stressors that already beset many South Africans. The country has amongst the highest levels of mental illness worldwide, much of which is linked to high levels of gender-based and other forms of violence, crime, poverty, inequality, HIV and political turmoil [ 70 , 71 ]. Climate change could possibly signal a tipping point for many citizens. Though this issue is of major importance, no studies in South Africa were located in our review that directly address interactions between climate change and mental health. It is especially important to determine if risky sexual behaviours in South Africa increase following disasters or migration related to climate change. This outcome is plausible given that risky behaviours, in general, tend to rise in these circumstances [ 72 ]. Some newspaper reports have suggested that the recent drought in the country is associated with elevated suicide rates among farmers, but additional research is needed on this question [ 73 , 74 ].

3.4. Effects of Climate Change on Specific Population Groups

It is one of the tragic ironies of our times that the population groups that have contributed least to greenhouse-gas emissions are the first and the hardest hit by the effects of these emissions. South Africa is ranked as the second most inequitable country in the world, where the poorest 20% of the population consumes less than 3% of total expenditure, and the wealthiest 20% consumes 65% [ 75 ].

Our ability to adapt to climate change may be shaped by the same inequalities that have become the fault lines of society in South Africa, above all, gender [ 35 ]. Rates of gender-based violence in the country are amongst the highest in the world, affecting 1 in 3 women during their lifetime [ 76 ]. Again, it would be important to investigate whether these rates rise even further following extreme weather events in the country, as has been reported elsewhere [ 77 ]. During food insecurity in the country, women and girls disproportionately suffer health consequences of nutritional deficiencies and carry additional burdens, such as travelling further to collect water during droughts [ 35 ]. According to a UNICEF report, children in South Africa are especially vulnerable to climate change, facing higher risks during extreme weather, malnutrition during food shortages, and respiratory disease from increases in pollen and dust [ 78 ]. Of the 57 million people in South Africa, about 8 million are infected with HIV, the largest number worldwide [ 54 , 79 ]. Immunocompromised populations may also be more susceptible to the increased pathogen loads associated with higher temperatures, when factors such as stigma and poor health have already undermined their resilience. Migration, which is related in part to climate change, creates additional risks for HIV acquisition [ 80 ]. Clearly, the interface between climate change and HIV in South Africa is complex and warrants careful study [ 18 ].

Extreme weather conditions will have considerable impacts on those who depend on climate-sensitive resources and ecosystems for their livelihoods. Soil drying, coupled with irregular rainfall caused by rising temperatures, particularly in the western regions of South Africa [ 20 ], constrains agricultural production. This is potentially most harmful for subsistence farming communities who are already prone to geopolitical and economic marginalization. Rainfall shortages, higher temperatures and reduced soil moisture have all been associated with internal migration in the country [ 81 ]. This is especially true of communities that are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood (e.g., firewood, seeds and wild foods) [ 34 ]. Movement to vulnerable inner-city areas and informal settlements is particularly concerning as these areas have the highest risks of HIV transmission [ 18 , 58 , 82 ]. These patterns, termed eco-migration, can accentuate the already high levels of urbanization in the country. Of note, migration carries increased risks of sexual violence for women and some female migrants in South Africa may have few options for survival other than sex work [ 83 ]. Eco-migration also erodes social networks—the practical and emotional resources underpinning health and well-being—and has fomented conflict in sub-Saharan Africa [ 26 ]. The potential for this to happen also in South Africa is high, as migration related to climate change may bring already festering xenophobic attitudes to the fore, and generate conflict and violence [ 26 ].

4. Conclusions

When climate change is framed as a predominately a health issue, rather than purely as an environmental, economic, or technological challenge, it becomes clear that South Africa is facing major challenges. Health puts a human face on what can sometimes seem to be a distant threat [ 84 ]. Through a deeper engagement with the topic, health professionals, hitherto fringe players, could lead the way in identifying impacts of climate change, addressing these and pushing for mitigation against further deterioration. Without these interventions, climate change will likely worsen the country’s existing socioeconomic and health inequities [ 22 ]. A step-change is required in the country’s response if it is to meet its commitments to the Sustainable Development Goal 2, which includes improved food security and improved nutrition, and sustainable agriculture [ 5 ].

It is significant that very few studies were identified in our review used empirical data from health services to analyze the impact of climate change. More effective use of surveillance and research data are required to monitor climate change impacts on human health in South Africa, and to then bring these findings to the attention of policy makers and the public. The considerable human resources dedicated to health research in the country have yet to turn their attention to climate change [ 38 ]. Equally, many of the leaders in climate change research globally are South African, but they have yet to focus on climate change and health [ 15 ]. A few carefully targeted funding opportunities may help to induce these shifts ( Box 1 ), especially if driven by a proactive inter-sectoral research agenda applying a full spectrum of research methodology, from modelling to social science enquiry. Notably, the review included only one qualitative research paper [ 31 ]. Perhaps most importantly, additional detection and attribution studies are needed in South Africa, documenting the extent to which changes in health can be attributed to climate change [ 51 , 85 ]. These studies can inform risk management and planning for future changes, but require reliable long-term data sets, and more knowledge about the factors that confound and modify the effects of climate on health [ 86 ].

Research agenda for Climate Change and Health in South Africa.

Key research   priorities :.

1. Examine the interface between climate change and HIV, identifying possibilities for a joined-up, synergistic, evidence-based response to climate-HIV interactions.

2. Attribution and detection studies that use long-term, multi-decadal climate data to document and project long-term trends in health outcomes. Most such work has focused on malaria, with substantial gaps in data on diarrheal diseases, for example. Predicting other emerging infectious diseases with more complex environmental determinants remains a significant challenge.

3. Document the heat impacts on vulnerable groups, such as infants and the elderly, and interactions between heat and poor air quality in occupational and domestic settings.

4. Understand heat exposure in occupational settings in South Africa and develop interventions to reduce health-health, especially for miners, agricultural workers and those providing outdoor services.

5. Investigate the effects of climate change on mental health, especially among vulnerable population groups.

6. Identify the indirect impacts of a changing climate on food security and other social determinants of health.

Importantly, the measurement and communication of the impact of climate change could be improved by drawing on the considerable policy, research, advocacy and communication expertise built up during the HIV response in South Africa. By becoming proficient communicators on the subject of climate change, health professionals could provide clear messaging on risks and actions required during extreme weather, for example. Just as critical is the need for health professionals to use their considerable influence to advocate for policy change and improved climate governance. The overarching priority ultimately is to enact policies to shift the country away from a coal-dependent energy system and economy, and to encourage the public to question its seemingly boundless desire for economic growth and consumer goods. This requires honest reflection on whether South Africans can ‘develop the enhanced moral imagination to motivate doing better and more with less, in time to effect meaningful change’ [ 87 ]. It is time for the health sector to position itself at the core of such changes.

Supplementary Materials

The following are available online at http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/9/1884/s1 , File 1, Protocol for systematic review of Climate Change research in South Africa.

Author Contributions

M.F.C. conceptualized the article. C.Y.W., F.V., H.R., F.S. and B.E. assisted in writing and reviewing the drafts of the paper. C.Y.W. assisted with extracting data into the tables showing the studies included. B.E. and H.R. provided senior author type inputs. F.S.’s main contribution was to help write the article and, most especially, to improve the clarity of the text. All authors contributed substantially to the article. F.V. provided critical inputs on the text on HIV in the paper.

This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26 , hailed as the world’s last best chance to effectively tackle climate change, is currently underway in Glasgow. You can read here about what the conference has achieved so far but, largely, the developing and island nations most vulnerable to climate change's impacts have been left on the sidelines. 

South Africa is one such country, with its biodiversity and ecosystems under threat. The country has a magnificent coastline where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet on its West Coast, boasting an incredibly rich marine wildlife . So how does climate change affect this kind of region specifically?

The Rainbow Nation's weather is characterised by a generally warmer climate that has cooler temperatures in high altitude regions. However, these past few decades we have seen a significant  rise in extreme weather conditions .

This has resulted in more in-land droughts for a country that is already considered water-scarce . Droughts and water shortages have been plaguing the nation for decades, and saw a peak in 2015 when the city of Cape Town was nearing complete loss of water, declared as a national disaster.

Coastal regions, meanwhile, are experiencing a rise in flooding , amid more frequent and severe thunderstorms, raging winds, and even tropical cyclones. Areas like the Western Cape have seen rainfall of up to 30 millimeters . While this may seem like a welcome relief to the drought-prone province, it actually causes localised flooding and damage to infrastructure.

Human activity has also played a significant role in the degradation of South Africa's land and seas. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) named South Africa as the 11th worst in the world for contributing to ocean plastic. It is estimated that South Africa is responsible for  109,000 tonnes of plastic reaching the ocean each year — around  41 kg of plastic waste per citizen per year.

Global Citizen spoke to marine biologist Thembeka Shongwe to learn more about what climate change means for South Africa.

causes of climate change in south africa essay

The 25-year-old is currently pursuing her masters in Ocean Sciences at the University of Cape Town. She is a young, Black woman with a love for aquaculture, and has a deep understanding of the marine environment and how climate change impacts ocean wildlife and South Africa's seas. She is also a newly appointed Technical Marketing Officer for Afrikelp — a company that provides seaweed solutions to boost agricultural performance.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine biology?

I didn’t intend on doing marine biology, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I’m from a small town in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, so I was never exposed to the ocean. I moved to Cape Town and six months into my first year of studying a BSc, there was a week where the topic was the ocean and I thought to myself that it was interesting that people have a career in the ocean.

Being a person of colour there is a lack of information in this particular career field. When I got back to my residence, I researched marine biology, and the next day I changed my degree.

My story is that I found the ocean to be a place of tranquility, serenity, and calmness, and I actually wanted it to be my everyday life. That is what inspired me to pursue marine biology and I became passionate about fisheries, aquaculture, and creating a voice for people of colour in this field — as I was the only person of colour, male and female, in my class.

What do you think are the biggest ocean-related problems facing the Global South?

One of the major issues right now is overfishing, specifically in the Global South. South Africa has such a beautiful and dynamic coastline; namely the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, all the way up to KwaZulu-Natal. The Western Cape is on the Benguela current which is characterised by a lot of hake. South Africa’s fishing industry makes most of its money from hake — we export it.

The fish stocks are declining because of this human activity. Of course, plastic pollution is also a major issue, but it is difficult to address in a developing country. One thing that people may not know is that a lot of this plastic is stuck in the ocean in huge gyres (a circular pattern of ocean currents).

Why is plastic pollution so difficult to address for developing countries?

Its because these nations lack the resources and technologies to combat plastic pollution. The economic state of the country makes it very difficult for people to use non-plastic products because basic living necessities have not yet been achieved. Third-world countries prioritise economic development and poverty reduction before giving consideration to environmental issues. Therefore, it is very difficult to address plastic pollution in a country where the majority are in the lower and middle class and are just trying to survive.

Environmental issues need awareness and money. We can make people aware of the impacts of plastic pollution, but if we can't provide them with a free alternative we will never be able to solve environmental issues such as plastic pollution. 

How have South Africa's in-land areas been affected by climate-related ocean changes?

Well, climate-related ocean changes have to do with global warming. Hot and dry places are just going to get hotter and drier, while wet and cold places are going to get wetter and colder. Global warming changes weather patterns.

In-land places like Limpopo and Mpumalanga are already experiencing extremely high temperatures reaching the 40 degrees Celsius range. Which means, as a nation, South Africa will be impacted in a negative way because these places are where farming is, and we will experience more droughts. Which means farmers need to think of new ways to combat drought.

What can the average South African do to help the planet?

My suggestions are going to seem a little extreme, it is something I am also struggling with. One thing that the average South African can do to help the planet is to decrease their meat and dairy intake and adopt a more plant-based diet, because cattle farming also contributes a lot to global warming.

Cows produce methane and this is one of the gasses that contribute to climate change. This is difficult to do because we’re not a developed country so the social implications include the loss of jobs. Young people should also speak up and as such, high school curriculums should teach and prioritise climate change because it’s harder to change an older person’s mind. The average South African can also carpool to work. Just lessen your carbon footprint or emissions as much as possible.

If you were attending COP26, what would your message be to world leaders?

Coming from a developing country, I would speak to the developed countries’ leaders and plead with them to invest in developing countries. It’s very easy for us to say “let’s combat climate change” but on a continent like Africa, a lot of the jobs we have contribute to climate change.

When we receive financial assistance we will be able to teach people new-age skills, resources, and developments instead of relying on things like coal. Instead of focusing on problems like our factories, which have a lot of gas emissions, and you do not want to trade with countries like ours, that’s not solving the problem. Rather give us the money to invest in solar power or develop electric cars, and so on.

It’s hard to implement climate change solutions in our region because we are worried about the next food on our table or money for transport for work tomorrow. Come at climate change in South Africa from a financial angle.

In addition to what I said earlier, developed countries need to also pledge to assist developing countries in supplying resources that will enable them to combat plastic pollution.

How would having more women, particularly women of colour, in your industry help reduce climate change?

I think right now the biggest problem is the "how" and the implementation. I feel like women, particularly women of colour, know how to implement things. By having women of colour in the climate-related field, it will really develop the implementation of things.

Women are always on their feet, things get done. They don’t just speak, they do, as they are “how” thinkers. Having more people of colour will ensure that policies that have been sitting there are implemented and that it is done well.

What message would you like to share with Global Citizens seeking to take climate action?

Everyone has Instagram. I think it’s very important to follow COP26 just so you are aware of how you are impacted by it. I think that people don’t want to be sitting and reading about things that don’t really matter to them. I think it’s important that people start to personalise things that are happening around them. We don’t have a personal relationship with the earth and the ocean as people.

That means if you are someone who loves sport, think about what is going to happen if temperatures have drastically increased. There’s not going to be any sport played! You can put it into perspective and speak up.

Global Citizen Asks

Defend the Planet

What Does Climate Change Mean for a Coastal African Country Like South Africa?

Nov. 11, 2021

The influence of climate change on fire activity in South Africa

causes of climate change in south africa essay

Researcher, Agrometeorology, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of KwaZulu-Natal

causes of climate change in south africa essay

Senior Professor, Agrometeorology, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Disclosure statement

Sheldon Strydom receives funding from the NRF and UKZN.

Michael John Savage receives funding from the NRF.

University of Kwa-Zulu Natal provides funding as a partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

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causes of climate change in south africa essay

-Fires are often seen as destructive. But when used properly it can be a force for good. For example, the floral biodiversity of savanna ecosystems is largely driven by fire activity . South Africa’s fynbos region – a floral region with plants unique to South Africa – is also highly dependent on fires to manage water and nutrient resources .

Of course, fire can also have a negative effect on the environment. Air quality can be damaged by the release of carbon monoxide and ozone and the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during the burning of biomass (organic matter) has been linked to climate change .

Scientists have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to understand fire activity and how it relates to vegetation communities, topography and – of great concern in recent years – climate change .

Traditionally, research has been limited mainly to smaller geographical areas of interest and short observation periods. But recent developments in satellite based remote sensing have created the opportunity to study fire actively over large regions. For example, past research in South Africa has focused largely on national parks. With remote sensing technology, scientists can now gain insights into the fire dynamics of rural areas.

This technological advancement helped us investigate fire dynamics over larger areas of South Africa. We combined the data with an investigation into the years which experienced abnormal air temperature and rainfall characteristics to gain a meaningful insight into the relationship between climate change and fire activity .

Climate change and fire activity

The relationship between climate change and fire activity can be quite complex. But two simplified scenarios have been established by the International Panel on Climate Change and associated climate scientists .

When air temperatures are above the global mean of 14 °C, heat waves and drought conditions may be more severe. This may cause vegetation to desiccate at higher rates. That leads to drier fuel loads, the amount of vegetation that can potentially be ignited, and ultimately, more fires.

Under a warming climate, rainfall may be significantly higher . This leads to heavier fuel loads, which causes more available fuel to burn and also increased rates of spread when fires occur.

There’s also a feedback mechanism between climate change and fire activity. Increased fire activity will release greater concentrations of greenhouse gases. This can result in an enhanced greenhouse effect, which in turn can cause further increases in fire activity.

A recent study found an increase in the length and severity of fire seasons across the globe. The study revealed that contemporary changes in the global climate has resulted in increased periods of fire danger. These changes indicate that fire activity is likely to increase in a warming climate. The study also pointed to the dangers of increased fire in South Africa.

Persistent fire weather season length increases in ecosystems such as South Africa’s Mediterranean fynbos could lead to more frequent severe burning conditions and more area burned, shortening fire return intervals and threatening these biodiversity-rich shrublands.

For example, climate change and short-term climate variability such as La Niña – which is characterised by colder ocean temperatures – could lead to increased fire activity in South Africa.

The threat in South Africa

Fires are already a regular feature of the South African landscape, as they are across Africa, which is nicknamed the “ Fire Continent ”.

Between 2003 and 2014, the greatest number of fires in South Africa occurred in 2005, 2007 and 2010 .

2005 and 2010 have been cited as two of the warmest years on record in the southern hemisphere compared to a global average . We can assume that South Africa’s annual average air temperatures would be similar to those in the southern hemisphere as a whole. This therefore suggests that there’s a relationship between a spike in the number of fires in 2005 and 2010 and the above-average air temperature measured in those years.

The increase in fires in 2007 may be linked to the fact that in 2006 the most recent La Niña led to increased rainfall over the eastern half of South Africa. In turn this may have led to increased vegetation growth during the 2007 winter. This is also the eastern region’s fire season, hence an increase in the number of fires.

But caution should be exercised when linking climate change to regional phenomena, particularly given that rainfall, vegetation and even topography can vary widely.

Recent years do support the hypothesised effects of climate change on South African fires. But further long-term statistical analyses need to be done to develop a deeper understanding of the effects of climate change on fire activity on a regional and local level.

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The Effects of Climate Change in South Africa

Climate change is a key concern within South Africa. The country has a variety of ecosystems and habitats that are changing dramatically due to enhanced climate change - some of which is caused by human interference. 

causes of climate change in south africa essay

Climate change poses a significant threat to South Africa’s water resources, food security, health and infrastructure. In the context of South Africa’s socio-economic development and threatened ecosystem, it is of utmost importance that citizens become informed about the effects that climate change is having on the country and its biodiversity.

Fynbos on Fire

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How Global Warming will Affect South Africa's Habitat

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South Africa's Changing Climate

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Climate Change Made an Early Heat Wave in West Africa 10 Times as Likely

Temperatures in the region rose above 40 degrees Celsius in February, with humidity pushing the heat index even higher.

causes of climate change in south africa essay

By Delger Erdenesanaa

A remarkably early, record-breaking heat wave hit the southern part of West Africa in mid-February. Climate change made this extreme heat 10 times as likely, according to a new analysis by an international team of scientists. It also pushed the heat index about four degrees Celsius higher than it would have been without the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

Officials saw the unusual temperatures coming, and national weather agencies in Ghana and Nigeria issued warnings to the public. The Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament took place in Ivory Coast during the heat wave, and players had to take extra breaks during games to hydrate.

What was particularly arresting about this heat wave was the onset of high temperatures so early in the year, when people have had less time to adjust to rising temperatures. “Many, many people wouldn’t have been acclimatized to the heat,” said Wasiu Adeniyi Ibrahim, head of the Nigerian Meteorological Agency’s central forecast office and an author of the study.

During the heat wave, humidity raised the danger. During the worst of the event, temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. But high humidity meant the air felt even hotter. The heat index, which measures the combined effect of heat and humidity on the human body, rose to around 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers have limited data about how this heat affected people more broadly across West Africa, and whether it led to many hospitalizations and deaths. But there’s reason to believe there may have been widespread harm, according to Maja Vahlberg, a risk consultant at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and one of the authors of the analysis.

Many residents of the region don’t have adequate access to water, energy and sanitation. That means that during heat waves, “people are left with very limited options for individual coping strategies, such as using air-conditioning and drinking or taking more showers,” Ms. Vahlberg said. About half of the region’s urban population lives in informal housing, including homes built with sheet metal, which traps heat.

Older people, those with existing illnesses and outdoor workers are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.

The analysis, by a group known as World Weather Attribution, took longer than similar studies the group’s scientists have done on other extreme weather events. West Africa has less data available from weather stations than other regions of the world, which makes studies linking weather there to climate change more difficult to conduct. But last month’s extreme heat was an early sign, before spring had even started, of things to come both in this region and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere this summer.

Delger Erdenesanaa is a reporter covering climate and the environment and a member of the 2023-24 Times Fellowship class, a program for journalists early in their careers. More about Delger Erdenesanaa

Learn More About Climate Change

Have questions about climate change? Our F.A.Q. will tackle your climate questions, big and small .

Decades of buried trash in landfills is releasing methane , a powerful greenhouse gas, at higher rates than previously estimated, a study says.

Ocean Conservation Namibia is disentangling a record number of seals, while broadcasting the perils of marine debris in a largely feel-good way. Here’s how .

To decarbonize the electrical grid, companies are finding creative ways to store energy during periods of low demand in carbon dioxide storage balloons .

New satellite-based research reveals how land along the East Coast is slumping into the ocean, compounding the danger from global sea level rise . A major culprit: overpumping of groundwater.

Did you know the ♻ symbol doesn’t mean something is actually recyclable ? Read on about how we got here, and what can be done.

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