While the effects may be intense for all, climate change has a unique impact on the demographics in the population that make direct contact with natural resources in their daily lives and depend on them for their livelihoods, especially those who have less capacity to react to events such as flooding or droughts.
Poverty in South Africa is disproportionately feminised because of structural and historic inequalities. Many households are headed by women and a large proportion exist in impoverished circumstances in informal and rural settlements where there isn’t proper housing or infrastructure, making this segment of the population particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Even in homes where there is a male counterpart, patriarchal norms force women into positions where they shoulder the bulk of the domestic labour and childcare to balance men’s illusory position as providers. And beyond South Africa generally being a water-scarce country, many of these communities still draw water from communal municipal taps, rivers and dams — another responsibility that tends to fall on women.
In addition to being primary caregivers, in their capacities as domestic workers and the workforce in medical and hospitality industries, women are more susceptible to exposure to cholera, malaria and other pollution and vector-borne disease and infection caused by pollution — not excluding the high rates of tuberculosis and HIV infection. Furthermore, immigration caused by flooding, fires and other unfavourable weather conditions make women and children vulnerable to gender-based violence in camps that house displaced communities.
Any effective climate empowerment, finance policies and plans of action in South Africa would be well-advised to address women’s needs first to ensure better safety for everyone. And consider the reality of widespread illiteracy and the lack of access to risk calculators that enable these threatened communities to adapt to the effects of climate change in time.
The South African government’s climate change response vision has two key objectives, as stated by the department of environmental affairs: to effectively manage the impact through interventions that build and sustain South Africa’s social, economic and environmental resilience and emergency response capacity as well as making a contribution to the global effort to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
One of the ways local governments is learning to better grasp the consequences of climate change and how to respond is through the recently-launched Green Book open access tool. Cited as one of the most novel and information-dense research tools on the continent, it takes demography, architecture, urban planning and economics among other key variables into account in its disaster risk forecasts.
More practically, the carbon footprint-focused programme WWF Nedbank Green Transport Low-Carbon Frameworks Programme, headed by Louise Naude, aims to reduce carbon emissions on South Africa’s roads by shifting the transport of processed foods from road to rail.
The uMngeni Resilience Project, under the leadership of Lungi Ndlovu, works to reduce climate vulnerability in the rural settlements and farming areas of uMgungundlovu District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal. It achieves this through gender-sensitive project interventions that focus on early warning and ward-based disaster response systems, ecological and engineering infrastructure solutions that focus on women in vulnerable communities, integrating the use of climate-resilient crops and climate-smart techniques into new and existing farming systems.
The projects includes a temporary weather station at Swayimane High School that is being used while a permanent one is being secured. The data collected from the weather station will be used for teaching and learning purposes that will equip learners with the skills to interpret weather forecasts and help their older family members who farm to plan agricultural activities accordingly. Field trials of climate-smart crops with 126 farmers in the area – 103 of whom are women — have been completed. Community participation in this programme has allowed participants to feel the adverse effects of the drought to a lesser degree than than those endured by communites in nearby areas. A community garden has also been set up that will give UKZN another opportunity to look into climate-smart agriculture methods.
Women remain underrepresented as policymakers, but the success of the uMngeni Resilience Project and the advantages it continues to produce for the district shows that an effective strategy is one that is centred on the involvement of women and children. As the climate crisis worsens, it’s becoming apparent that many of the most practical solutions will come from the segment of the population most affected.