/ 13 June 2017

​Climate change evident in Cape storm and Knysna fires

Houses in the Knysna Heights area were destroyed in the fires on June 9 2017.
Houses in the Knysna Heights area were destroyed in the fires on June 9 2017.

The mother of all storms. The worst drought in a century. More intense fires than any in living memory. The hottest years on record. This is the new normal.

South Africa’s climate is changing and with that comes extreme weather. Events such as crippling storms and droughts, which used to happen once a century, will happen every decade, or more frequently. We know this. There are plans to tackle this. But these are not being implemented, and the cost of cleaning up is climbing.

In Cape Town, the worst storm in two decades saw 8m waves thundering into the coastline. In Knysna, that storm drove fires, which spread for 100km and destroyed 600 homes. Seven people died. Initial estimates by disaster management officials are that the overall damage will amount to more than R4-billion.

The principal plan for dealing with a future in which this happens more often is the National Adaptation Strategy. The draft, released last year, predicted the calamities that unfolded across the coastal Cape regions this month: “Communities may experience increased exposure to raging fires, exacerbated by changes in climatic conditions like extended, dry, hot spells and fanned by strong, unseasonal winds.”

And: “Communities located in a different province may experience extensive floods caused by excessive downpours, sea level rise, ageing stormwater infrastructure or inadequate designs to deal with the rate of urban growth and development in recent years.”

Knysna’s incident commander, Richard Geldenhuys, told media this week: “The scale and intensity [of the fire], mixed with the drought and intense weather conditions, made it impossible to deal with.”

A thousand firefighters were drafted in from the rest of the country to help.

Once a narrative of the future, of 2030 and 2050, the increase in extreme events are realities that countries are having to deal with now. The reason for this requires no debate: human emissions of greenhouse gases — from cars to smokestacks — are warming the planet. The concentration of the most plentiful of those gases, carbon dioxide, is at a higher level than at any time in human history.

People and nature have adapted to climate change in the past. But, as the National Adaptation Strategy states, the “unprecedented pace of current changes” makes doing this harder.

Cognisant of this, South Africa joined nearly 200 other countries in signing the Paris Agreement in 2015 to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But, even if all emissions were stopped now, the gases already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the world for the coming century.

Therefore, South Africa has to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Either way, the roughly predictable 18-year weather cycle of droughts and floods is coming to an end. The extremes of that cycle have led to damage. According to the latest summary the government sent to the United Nation’s climate agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, damaging events cost R2-billion a year throughout the noughties. But, in the seven years since, that figure has jumped to R6-billion a year.

Record hot years in 2014, 2015 and 2016 have exacerbated South Africa’s three main natural disasters: drought, flood and veld fires. That has meant more than three years of constantly dealing with disaster declarations and crisis response throughout the country.

Although temperatures cannot be controlled, the ability of society and the economy to handle the related disasters, known as resilience, can be strengthened. Hence the adaptation strategy. Its targets are enshrined in the 2014 to 2019 medium-term strategic framework. This requires the government to do things such as sustaining ecosystems, so they can act as a buffer when disaster strikes — such as wetlands, which catch and slow down flash floods so the water does not wash away homes — and ensuring there’s a disaster response system in place.

Some work on this is being done. A local green fund, with R800-million in funds, is backing projects that increase people’s resilience. It is supporting initiatives such as a R232-million aquaculture project in the Camdeboo municipality of the Eastern Cape.

In Cape Town, a rapid decrease in the cost of desalination technology means the city could get a third of its water from the ocean. The various Working For programmes are creating tens of thousands of jobs in rural areas, while looking after wetlands and getting rid of thirsty invasive plant species. Eight hundred of their firefighters are fighting the Knysna fires.

But it is not enough. Adapting to climate change is something that the country’s 226 local municipalities, 19 government departments and parastatals must focus on and work together on. Many aren’t. The adaptation strategy warns: “Institutional fragmentation poses enormous challenges to co-ordination, which is compounded by the fact that few departments, apart from environmental affairs, view climate change as a priority in their sector.”

Put more bluntly by an official in the co-operative governance department: “Our climate crisis is here but, at best, the different departments have an office that they dedicate to the problem — because they have to.”

Officials and researchers in other departments, parastatals and groups such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research have all expressed similar frustrations.

Each government entity has to create a climate change plan, and most have. But that’s as far as they get.

The National Development Plan, which should be pulling these plans together to do things such as bolster resilience to storms and droughts, is not being implemented.

Mines continue to get permission to dig up wetlands and cities still allow shopping centres to be built on endangered grassland.

Climate change, an issue that should be at the heart of all planning, is left on the periphery, treated as a luxury. The result will be death and destruction. Research by Stanford University last year warned that this country’s gross domestic product could shrink by 66% by 2100 as a result of climate change destroying the ecosystems that life relies on.