Increasing our resilience to extreme weather and climate events

Dhesigen Naidoo, chief executive of the Water Research Commission. (Photo: LWG Photo)

Dhesigen Naidoo, chief executive of the Water Research Commission. (Photo: LWG Photo)

As much as South Africa’s climate variations are characterised by severe spatial and temporal fluctuations in rainfall, with a record decline and increasing trends of temperature, warnings issued through responsible institutions are often ignored. This usually results in negative implications to the water-linked sectors on issues relating to development, food security, production and water resource management and planning, together with risk and disaster management. The Water Research Commission (WRC) has convened a multi-institutional panel to provide for regular assessments of climate and weather in relation to water security and water-linked development, and to provide advice to enable resilience and adaptation to the changing climate.

The purpose of the forum is to regularly generate demystified and interpreted weather and climate information to encourage resilience of the water sector to a changing climate and assess the adaptive options and possible remedies, while issuing recommendations for decision support and response.

In a recent meeting of the panel the South African Weather Service reflected on a forecast of the winter season. Professor Hannes Rautenbach, chief scientist for Climate Change and Variability, indicated that the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is expected to weaken from a moderate La Niña phase to a neutral phase through to late winter (July to September). The La Niña phase has strengthened over the last month, against most models’ expectations. The forecast indicates that during late autumn (April to June) and early winter, parts of the South-Western Cape region can expect above-normal rainfall. Temperatures are still expected to be lower in general during late autumn and early winter for the North-Eastern parts of the country, but warmer during mid-winter. The South-Western parts are expected to have higher temperatures on average throughout late autumn, early and mid-winter. The South African Weather Service continues to monitor and provide updates of any future assessments that may provide more clarity on the current expectations for the coming seasons.

Professor Francois Engelbrecht of the CSIR gave insights on the future climate change over Eastern South Africa and the mega-dam area, a study commissioned by the WRC. He explored the projected impacts on streamflow and dam levels. The findings of this extensive investigation, which also considered seasonal forecast skill over Eastern South Africa and Lesotho, and the impacts of climate change on variability and predictability, revealed a new methodology developed to project dam levels and streamflow over Eastern South Africa and Lesotho, at both seasonal and climate change time-scales.

At climate change time-scales, the project has identified and quantified a critical risk in terms of South Africa’s water security as it relates to the mega-dam region, namely the occurrence of multi-year droughts in relation to an enhanced El Niño signal in southern Africa’s climate under low mitigation futures. The research indicates that such events may plausibly occur regularly from the middle of the century onwards, with significant impacts on dam levels in the mega-dam region, thus posing grave risks to water security.

A second key finding of the report is that, despite the plausibility of decreasing rainfall totals over Eastern South Africa and Lesotho, convective (short and intense) rainfall events may plausibly occur increasingly over these regions.

Professor Babatunde Abiodun of the University of Cape Town explained the nature and characteristics of regionally extensive droughts experienced over Southern Africa over the past 60 years and projected their anticipated patterns and behaviour until the end of the century. About half of Southern Africa droughts can be represented, with four major drought modes intensively covering the South-Western part of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and over Angola. Their patterns can be generally classified into three groups: All-dry pattern (showing dry conditions over the entire Southern Africa); All-wet pattern (showing wet conditions over the whole region); and Dipole pattern (showing wet conditions over a part of the sub-continent and dry conditions elsewhere).

While each drought pattern can occur in any season, some drought patterns have preference for seasons. Furthermore, some droughts patterns can persist from season to season, while others easily transit to another pattern in the following season. A general shift in the Southern Africa droughts has been observed, from All-wet patterns in 1950s-1970s to All-dry patterns in 1990, possibly due to climate change.

Dr Hector Chikoore of the University of Venda reflected on a case of resilience by sharing a story of adaptation to extreme events in the Northern parts of South Africa, which is permanently in Day Zero. 

The North-East of South Africa, which covers the Limpopo province, is a region in which communities have grappled with challenges of water supply for decades. Their story is not highlighted in the media as much as the current drought affecting the Cape provinces, possibly because the rural communities have developed strategies of living with limited water supply in a climate that is highly variable.

The recent 2015/16 El Niño-induced drought was only second to that of 1991/92 in terms of rainfall anomalies, but was the hottest season. The following season was characterised by a high number of rainy days and the threat of cyclonic rainfall from tropical cyclone Dineo in February 2017. The rains came late to the North-East during the current (2017/18) summer season, but with a particularly wet February in 2018. While rains were being experienced elsewhere, January was particularly dry and very hot, with repeated heat wave conditions in the Northern parts of South Africa. During the same season, there was a shift from very hot and drought-like situation to wet and muddy conditions in the rural parts.

Record global average temperatures were reported in 2015, 2016 and 2017 as three of the hottest years since instrumental records began. The rural communities in Limpopo have adapted to drought events and heat wave conditions through rainwater harvesting by schools and households, sustainable use of community boreholes, in situ water purification systems at local clinics for borehole water, planting vegetables that survive in harsh summer conditions and require less water to produce, changing of the planting dates and conservation of soil moisture through zero tillage/ mulching, and using reeds for providing shade for livestock during hot weather.

They adapted to flash floods through the construction of ridges and fallows for vegetables, porches against the wall of houses, channelling of water to streams and rivers, and planting trees to act as windbreaks in severe thunderstorms. In very rare cases, temporary relocation was necessary. The rising temperatures and increased frequency of heat waves required deliberate attention as they affect human health, livestock and productivity in water-linked sectors.

All these vagaries of climate mean that balanced planning and readjustment are necessary to adapt to the new normal. It is important to adequately plan to respond continually to both droughts and floods, while increasing resilience to these extremes. Future infrastructural development needs to ensure that more floodwater is captured and stored for use, thereby significantly contributing to risk reduction and managing societal vulnerability to these extremes. The advisory panel will sit regularly to assess the climatic situations and recommend adaptive response while contributing to improvements in planning and reduction of risk. 

Tap into people to deliver water

By Virginia Molose

We are often overwhelmed by the positive outcome our projects have in communities and the lasting effect these projects have on the partners we involve in our work. The excitement brought by the limitless potential we see from the multiple water use project is beyond measure; the value counted in years and the savings we bring to such projects amounts to millions of rands.

When the African Water Facility appointed us in 2016 to offer a perspective and leadership on operationalising community-driven multiple use water services in South Africa, we knew that we had a daunting task of making the promulgation of regulations and guidelines practical. Such a beginning has brought us to a position where we have a well-researched baseline and draft design information. We are able to tell the extent of the intervention required from stakeholders and funding partners.

Our biggest concern has always been the disjuncture between the supply of water and its usage by communities, which is caused by the type of methodology used for public participation. Government draws up plans for water provision, particularly in their integrated development plans, but these often conflict with what communities have in mind, making most of the schemes ineffective over a period of time. In addition, massive neglect of the infrastructure provided leads to the total collapse of some of those schemes.

In our two years of research we have come to tap into community wisdom that has strengthened our position on multiple water use. Communities don’t only need clean, treated water; they also need water for irrigation, livestock, farming and other activities.

Today, we boast invaluable knowledge into how people living in Tshakhuma, Khalavha, Ha-Gumbu, Phiring, Ga-Mokgotho and Ga-Moela have turned their dire need for a consistent water supply into a major community initiative that promises to go beyond what government has provided. Even more appealing is the knowledge that the various schemes we researched are primarily community driven, thereby helping to ensure their sustainability.

Our partnership with various structures and organisations, and using participatory approaches to solving water challenges, has been the cornerstone of this research. Dialogue has paved ways for a finer funding formula that we shall explore to the full in the implementation stages. 

We partnered with the International Water Management Institute, Tsogang Water and Sanitation, the departments of water and sanitation, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Limpopo’s department of agriculture and rural development, African Water Facility, African Development Bank and the Vhembe and Sekhukhune district municipalities.

We are persuaded that this partnership and its dialogues will ensure that people receive reliable, year-round water for both domestic and productive use. The next two years will test our resolve as we move into the implementation stage, using the major component of our funding from the African Water Facility. What is of value is seeing that the experiment undertaken in the two district municipalities is replicated across the country, particularly in areas where there is an abundance of water and an egalitarian society.