Climate change demands that we must adapt

After many years of speculation about climate change, it is a reality and something we cannot ignore any longer. It is wreaking havoc, as evidenced by the heatwave that has been experienced in parts of South Africa in the past month.

Hitherto, the scorching temperatures that we South Africans have been exposed to were fantasies of Middle Eastern countries, where cold winters are unheard of and temperatures can reach high extremes.

Predicted years ago by scientists, climate change has set in in earnest and we have little option but to adapt to the ever-changing weather patterns. Two years ago, with El Niño, there were unprecedented dry conditions in eight provinces, which destroyed crops and led to the loss of livestock, severely affecting the economy. The drought left many South Africans wondering whether we were not heading for the doomsday prediction of a semi-desert.

Currently, the Western Cape is experiencing the worst drought in years, with the levels in 43 dams dropping by 1.3% this week. Indications are that, unless Mother Nature intervenes, 21 000 registered boreholes may soon run dry. The department of water and sanitation has sent 12 water scientists, including hydrologists, to help the City of Cape Town and the provincial government.

Around the globe, hot days are getting hotter and more frequent and we’re experiencing fewer cold days. Over the past decade, daily record high temperatures have occurred twice as often as record lows, up from a near 1:1 ratio in the 1950s. Heat waves are becoming more common, especially in the United States, although in many parts of that country, the 1930s still holds the record for number of heat waves.

By mid-century, if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly curtailed, scientists expect 20 record highs for every record low. In parts of the southern hemisphere, the frequency of days above 40°C could triple to more than 75 days a year.

Although Chad is considered to be one of the countries worst affected by climate change in Africa, it is by no means alone. A study by the Brookings Institute found that the continent is home to seven out of 10 countries projected to be hardest hit: Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea.

With 94% of Africa’s farm produce dependent on rain, climate change is already harming harvests. These crop yields could decrease by up to 50% by 2020, with severe consequences for food security. Agriculture in South Africa consumes up to 62% of its water, the highest of all its industries.

Remember how we panicked in 2016 when Gauteng, the hub of the country’s economy, was on the brink of running out of water because of low water levels in the Vaal Dam? Subsequently, the government was forced to draw water from its reserves at the Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State.

Last year, the drought was followed by flash floods that claimed the lives of dozens of people and destroyed schools, roads, houses and infrastructure in Durban, parts of Mpumalanga, Johannesburg and in Krugersdorp on the West Rand.

In 2011, heavy summer rains across South Africa caused severe damage to agricultural areas and destroyed scores of homes and killed 39 people in KwaZulu-Natal. A total of 34 people were evacuated in the Ivory Park area north of Johannesburg and four were rescued in Centurion when floods swept through the area.

At the Thembakazi informal settlement and Rabie Ridge north of Johannesburg, emergency services had to evacuate residents who were on the verge of being flooded.

This week temperatures zoomed up in most parts of the country, with Johannesburg and Pretoria at 37°C. Severe heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can result in a person losing consciousness, experiencing seizures or going into cardiac arrest.

People around the world look forward to warm temperatures and outdoor activity, but the summer heat can turn deadly when those temperatures soar well above the norm and stay high for days on end.

Blistering temperatures, coupled with high humidity, can stress people’s systems to the limit and cause death. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding outdoor activities during the hottest part of the day are two simple ways to keep safe during a heat wave.

High humidity and elevated night temperatures appear to be key ingredients in causing heat-related illness and mortality. Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to cool itself effectively. Normally, the body can cool itself by sweating but, when the humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate quickly, potentially leading to heat stroke. When there’s no break from the heat at night, it can cause discomfort and lead to health problems, especially for the poor and elderly.

Hotter temperatures and heavier rainfall mean malaria, one of the continent’s biggest killers, will also spread to new areas, including the Lowveld in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi.

The true economic effect of climate change is hard to predict, save to say that many key economic sectors, from fishing to energy and water utilities, will feel the long-term effects. From warming seas, which encourages the proliferation of non-native species that affect fishing industries, to rising temperatures, which affects energy usage around the world, our shifting global climate will force many industries to move quickly to adapt to change.

Even recreation and tourism industries are weather-dependent, with planning based on historical weather patterns, which climate change will disrupt. As we move into an era in which the effects of climate are all around us, adapting to these changes quickly will be crucial for all sectors of the global economy.

Climate change and global warming are already beginning to transform life on Earth. Without action, climate change threatens to damage our world. But by rallying people around the world to be a part of the solution, together we have the power to limit the effects of climate change.

Themba Khumalo is content producer for the department of water and sanitation 

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