Risk and Vulnerability Atlas launched to help South Africa respond to climate change

South Africa is facing an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, dry spells, heat waves and severe thunderstorms as a result of climate change. These have the potential to increase vector-borne diseases (such as malaria) and lead to food, energy and water insecurity, which will consequently threaten livelihoods.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate variability and change, a situation aggravated by the interaction of “multiple stressors” occurring at various levels, and low adaptive capacity. Even if the Paris Agreement is adhered to and the global temperature increase is kept to two degrees Celsius or less, climate-modelling studies suggest that Africa may still see a temperature rise that is higher than this.

Effectively, climate change, interacting with multiple stressors, will have detrimental effects on the development of the continent, on food and water security, and will continue to hinder Africa’s ability to achieve the sustainable development goals. With the fastest-growing and youngest population in the world, this is a situation that demands immediate action.

The department of science and technology (DST) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have launched the second edition of the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (Sarva), which shows South Africa’s vulnerability to climate change. The atlas disseminates spatial and non-spatial data that describes, assesses and evaluates the risks and vulnerabilities facing the country due to climate change. Developed by the CSIR, the atlas will also help the country’s economic and social sectors make informed decisions to avoid risks related to climate change.

In recent years, the country has experienced an El Niño-related drought, reported to be one of the worst meteorological droughts since 1904, with the average rainfall at this period in late 2014-2016 being 403mm compared to 608mm over the last 112 years.

El Niños are associated with the warming up of the Pacific Ocean, which normally warms at a rate of 0.01% but has increased to a rate of 0.1%, and the danger of exceeding the 1% critical threshold is imminent.

Of critical importance is the need for planners and decision-makers to move from reactive crisis management approaches to proactive climate change and disaster risk management approaches. According to the Financial and Fiscal Commission report, the 20 most vulnerable municipalities in South Africa are rural, small towns and secondary cities.

Speaking at the launch on Tuesday, the DST deputy director general: socio-economic innovation partnerships, Imraan Patel, said the atlas was a science policy initiative of the DST’s Global Change Grand Challenge, and was a repository of the most up-to-date information to support decision-making at local and national levels in South Africa.

“In a data-driven world, the importance of analytical tools that can make sense of the plethora of data is self-evident. Proper analysis and the capacity to use such information will inform the innovation and technological improvements that enable South Africa to implement its nationally determined contributions to combat climate change,” said Patel, adding that the atlas could serve as an educational tool to provide evidence of potential impacts of climate to communities and decision-makers.

CSIR natural resources and environment executive director, May Hermanus, said increasingly, settlements are becoming vulnerable to risks through growing poverty, lack of basic services and human rights, and their extension into unsafe land.

“Their vulnerabilities are expected to increase due to the high levels of informal housing and the lack of efficient management of these growth areas. Rural areas are particularly vulnerable due to their dependency on climate-sensitive resources such as water and an agrarian landscape. Climate change will affect livelihoods beyond living conditions and infrastructure,” said Hermanus.

She said that it was important for government, business and research institutions to work together in responding to these issues immediately, towards South Africa’s sustainable development.

The DST conceived the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas in 2008 as a flagship programme of the Global Change Grand Challenge, one of the themes of the Innovation Towards a Knowledge Economy plan. Among others, the programme focuses on the use of science and technology in responding to global change. It aims to enhance scientific understanding of global change and to develop innovative technologies to respond to global change, with an emphasis on climate change. The Sarva was designed to ensure that existing knowledge of global change risks and vulnerability is made available for those who could benefit from its use.

Three products have since been developed under the Sarva: the online electronic spatial database, the Reading Risk Sarv-gap tool and the first edition of the Sarva, published in 2012.

The Sarva data platform provides data and information on the vulnerabilities and risks associated with global change, including climate change, for various sectors in South Africa. The online portal, which is structured according to 12 different themes, contains theme-specific spatial data and case studies. The portal is managed by the South Africa Earth Observation Network and can be accessed at http://sarva2.dirisa.org/.

The Reading Risk Sarv-gap, an offline tool, was developed for local government officials, especially those with limited or unreliable internet access. This tool can be accessed through the Sarva website (mentioned above). It offers information on the basic concepts of risk and vulnerability in the context of climate change to enhance the user’s understanding of the spatial and non-spatial information on the portal.

The first edition of the Sarva atlas contained chapters and case studies based on the themes on the portal and as defined in the National Climate Change Response White Paper. The second edition of the atlas differs from the first edition in several respects and has more chapters, which are more detailed and incorporate feedback received from the first edition.

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