/ 25 October 2019

Climate change and poverty go hand in hand

Drought damage: Droughts in the past two years have made the poor even more vulnerable because food prices rise and they cannot depend on their own crops for sustenance.
AI can improve weather predictions, improve carbon capture solutions, make transportation more efficient and less detrimental to the environment. (Paul Botes/M&G)




There are close to 800-million people in the world who are considered poor, those who live on less than $1.90 (R28) a day, and more than 820-million people who do not have enough to eat. Three-quarters of people who are considered extremely poor live in rural areas and mostly depend on agriculture for income and food.

The fight to end poverty and hunger through agriculture has become more difficult because of the challenge of climate change. Ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and tackling climate change have to be dealt with simultaneously. The effect that droughts and floods have on infrastructure, health and diseases are felt most by the poor. Climate change hinders their ability to produce food, access resources and basic necessities.

In recent years, South Africa has also felt these sorts of effects — a persistent one being the frequency of droughts, which have occurred successively between 2015 and 2017. During this period average rainfall in the country was consistently low, placing immense pressure on agricultural activities. Production of most agricultural products fell below the usual rate, negatively affecting employment and food distribution.

For example, most poor people rely on maize to meet their food needs, but in 2016-2017, maize production dropped by more than 55%. For the first time in eight years, South Africa had to import maize. About 5.6-million tonnes were imported at a cost of R9.2-billion.

More than 14-million people in South Africa are classified as living under extreme poverty and most were affected by either a shortage (of maize in particular) or by high prices of food which rose at the end of 2015.

Inflation rose and stabilised at a significantly higher rate; this remained the case for most of 2017. The price of 5kg of maize meal increased from R36.39 in 2015 to R45.98 in 2017 —that is an increase of 26%, which is more than four times the upper inflation limit. Food inflation was higher than general inflation, implying that people who have to prioritise having enough to eat over other needs were more negatively affected by the drought.

Droughts and other climate change events increase the complexities of ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition and therefore needs to be included in any efforts to meet these goals. Fully funded programmes and strategies need to be implemented.

South Africa is already providing a cushion for the most vulnerable members of society through various types of social security protection such as social grants. These are directed at the elderly, disabled, war veterans, foster children and others.

The Department of Social Development accounted for more than 10% of the National Budget (R140-bn), and about 45% (R63-bn) went towards the distribution of social security protection.

If the government were to compensate for food-price increases because of the effects of drought, then the social security protection budget will have to increase by about 1%.

Research estimates that the cost to treasury to support the extremely poor population to maintain pre-drought living standards will be more than R275-million. This estimation was based on the welfare losses suffered because of price increases. These kinds of costs can be afforded on a once-off compensation basis. Long-term solutions, however, are needed to build people’s capacity, improve infrastructure to manage the distribution of food, as well as mitigate the effects of climate change.

The easiest way to end hunger is to build people’s capacities so they can provide for themselves. But this has to happen within a context that recognises the importance and value of the environment and resources.

Resources such as land, water-saving technologies and seed varieties that perform better under dry conditions should be provided to the poor.

This support should reach these groups in the same way that social security protection reaches all parts of the country. Such efforts allow the poor to become self-reliant, and their capacity to provide food for themselves is improved. They also have an opportunity to move into the next income group. based on their own activities.

Dr Mmatlou Kalaba is an agricultural economist and lecturer in international trade at the University of Pretoria and Elizabeth Mkandawire, PhD, is postdoctoral fellow and co-ordinator at theUN Academic Impact Hub for SDG2 at the University of Pretoria