/ 9 January 2021

Act against Covid and climate crises

Water Collection 0438 Dv
Incompetent or corrupt? A truck delivered water to people who don’t have access to a reliable supply of clean water. But not everyone got water because some trucks reportedly went ‘missing’. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


More than 280 days of Covid-19 lockdown regulations later, South Africans have begun to realise that it is not only the masks that are suffocating them, but the clogs in the system caused by corruption and the mismanagement of the pandemic and climate crisis.

The pandemic is said to be one of the big disasters that will go down in history. But what would you say if you found out that it is a mere dress rehearsal for a climate crisis that will be so devastating that we may not be alive to read history books about it? 

One would assume that the government would be proactive about creating a resilient system to address both disasters at the same time. 

Yet the government has, for example, failed to protect, respect and advance people’s rights to clean and safe water and sanitation, as it is required to by the Constitution. 

Some of the requirements for a Covid survival kit are clean water for sanitation and consumption.

But, for many South Africans in drought stricken parts of the country like Mbizana, Ntabankulu and Makhanda in the Eastern Cape which was in a four-year drought, not even the Covid-19 pandemic could get them clean water.

It was reported that water tanks went “missing”. The disappearance of the water tanks was no surprise in a country where ministers have been appointed and dismissed overnight and money has disappeared without a trace. 

But the question is whether this was the last straw for South Africans who have had a high tolerance for inadequacy.

It does not take a scientist or professional to realise how detrimental foul play during the Covid-19 pandemic will be to those already in dry and waterless parts of the country. Without access to adequate water supplies and infrastructure, and the second wave of Covid-19 in full force, many are experiencing yet another summer of dehydration and the rapid spread of diseases.

South Africa has long been known for its poor strategic foresight, as well as a failure to adopt intersectional and interdisciplinary approaches to decision-making and implementation. Last year showed us that we cannot keep spending funds on each individual disaster without properly assessing future risks and other potential national disasters.

The incident of the “missing” water tanks is just one example of how the government could have used a crisis like the pandemic as an opportunity to provide people with clean water and address the effects of droughts and poverty.

This was a chance for the government to catch up for lost time and also proactively mitigate the future effects of the “Day Zeros” that many South Africans are suffering.

With the pandemic still in force and the climate crisis at our doorstep, there is still time for the government to regain the trust of South Africans. That starts by admitting the mistakes made regarding the pandemic, righting the wrongs by dismissing corrupt officials and committing to be proactive with adaptation action and risk mitigation before other disasters arise.

The government must also come up with an integrated national plan of how to tackle Covid-19 and climate change related crises simultaneously. This would also mean that the government must declare climate change a national disaster — however controversial this will be in some quarters. 

After all, the harsh effects of climate change will, in the long term, be even greater than the pandemic.

 The end of Covid-19 and the rollout of a vaccine may lie in a bleak future, but that does not need to be the case for climate action. 

After following in the footsteps of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who declared climate change an emergency, President Cyril Ramaphosa is showing signs of promising new shoots for the green movement. 

Even though South Africa did not declare climate change an emergency, on 17 December, Ramaphosa announced the appointment of the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission (P4C) which would be driving “the just transition towards a low-carbon, inclusive, climate change resilient economy and society”. 

With the president showing that he might be ready to take bold steps towards climate mitigation and adaptation, and the annual international climate change negotiations — COP26 — also postponed to later this year, the government has time to raise its climate ambitions and finalise the Climate Change Bill of 2018.

In 2015, South Africa committed to the global sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement on climate action. That meant that “think global, act local” had to be to be materialised into an action plan. Five years later, South Africa is still dragging its feet instead of drafting a plan of how to move from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy, and also plan for uncontrollable disasters such as droughts, floods and storms.

South Africa is still moving too slowly and needs to start driving the green transition. Although it is obvious that with many still milking the last drops from the coal and oil industries, it might be years before we officially move away from fossil fuels. An opportunity will be lost.

More citizens need to stand up and call the government out for not taking climate change seriously. 

Hopefully with the P4C in effect, and potential for more South Africans to join the 22 members, more passionate citizens, researchers and practitioners will be appointed to contribute to the just green transition agenda and hold government officials accountable in governance processes.

Otherwise, we could find ourselves in the next few years in a place more horrifying than the Covid-19 pandemic.

We will have to live in a hot, dry and stormy country. Water will become a luxury, and the insurance companies and government will no longer afford to repair the homes, businesses and other property damaged by storms and floods.

Many of us will become displaced and by then, there will be no level one to look forward to.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.