Promoting healthy ecosystems to build resilience to climate change

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Adapting to climate change

A certain level of climate change is now inevitable, meaning that South Africa and the world will have to adapt in order to maintain economic stability and enjoy a measure of continued growth. Possible adaptations include, among other actions, the implementation of alternative farming practices, taking appropriate measures in development planning, engaging in land stewardship to maintain corridors between protected areas and engaging in wise resource use.

Examples of reactive adaptation strategies taking place around the world include the partial drainage of the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake in Nepal; changes in hunting and livelihood strategies in response to permafrost melt by the Inuit in Nunavut, Canada; and the increased use of artificial snow-making by the ski industry in Europe, Australia and North America. Measures being taken in anticipation of future climate change include the consideration of sea-level rise in the design of infrastructure such as the Confederation Bridge in Canada and in coastal zone management in the USA and The Netherlands.

The fist step to carrying out adaptation measures in South Africa is acknowledging the overall vulnerability of our country to climate change impacts. The health and agriculture sectors, plant and animal biodiversity, and South Africa’s water resources have been identified as areas of highest vulnerability to climate change and are areas that need to be targeted for adaptation. Vital industries, such as the mining and energy sectors, are also vulnerable, as they are subject to measures undertaken to mitigate climate change; and the South African economy itself is vulnerable to possible response measures implemented by developed countries, since the economy is highly dependent on income generated from production, processing and export (particularly of coal), and should take measures to adapt to changing demands. South African climate change scientist Guy Midgley has estimated that the cost of adaptations to deal with climate change could amount to between 5% and 10% of South Africa’s gross domestic product.

Adapting the way we use resources

In South Africa, climate change is expected to have the largest impact on rainfall and water availability, with western regions predicted to have 30% reduced water availability by 2050. At the same time, the country’s push for economic growth has already led to increased demands for water from industry, agriculture and expanded urban areas. Urgent steps need to be taken to prevent a water crisis and methods to preserve water should top the list of climate change adaptation measures. Individuals and communities should not only rely on government to show the way in using this precious resource wisely, but should play their own part in reducing water consumption in their daily lives.

As measures are put in place to slow the development of new coal-fired power-plants, electricity may well become restricted and prices increase dramatically. This will mean that South Africans we will need to change the way we use electricity, adapting by using less. There are so many simple ways that we can reduce the amount of electricity our homes and offices consume, benefiting the environment while reducing your monthly bills.

Click here for tips on how to reduce water and electricity consumption in your own home.

As energy and water supplies become more valuable, South Africans will need to reconsider their shopping habits. Purchasing items that have been imported on fuel-intensive transport may no longer be viable options, and consumers may need to look to buying locally produced goods. There are many benefits to purchasing Proudly South African, from reducing your environmental footprint to ensuring jobs for South Africans. Shoppers should also consider the amount of packaging on items as reducing the amount of trash that we dump into methane-producing landfills will become a priority as the Earth warms. We need to all be recycling and as consumers demanding that the amount of packaging in stores is minimized.

Our consumption of fish and seafood will also need to adapt to a decrease in these resources which is predicted due to rising water temperatures and acidity in both the sea and large freshwater lakes. This decrease could further be exacerbated by continued over-fishing. SASSI the Sustainable Seafood initiative has a Consumer’s pocket guide which can be used to make wise choices on which fish can be eaten and which are endangered and must be avoided. They also have a “fish” sms where you can sms a fish name in a restaurant and it will reply whether the fish is endangered (green, orange or red list) and advise you on your choice.

Sadly, it is the poor and marginal communities who will be most impacted by climate change, as these communities are directly dependent on their surrounding natural resources for their survival and have little capacity to adapt to changes in these resources. It is essential that these marginal communities are assisted in using resources sustainably and in developing alternative livelihoods in order to increase their adaptive capacity.


The agricultural industry, which is directly dependent on climatic variables, will be hardest hit by climatic changes. The predicted reduction in rainfall and water availability, increased droughts and increased incidence of storms and flooding will have a massive impact on South Africa’s farmers, with those farmers planting rain-fed crops in marginal areas the worst impacted. There are a number of measures that can be taken to lessen the impact of these changes. For example, farmers growing irrigated crops can significantly reduce their water needs through the use of drip and micro-jet irrigation and farmers can mulch their soils to reduce evaporative water loss. Farmers can also consider switching to crops that are more suited to the new climatic conditions. In the Western Cape for example, farmers are looking to replace apple orchards with Mediterranean crops such as olives and figs, which will be able to grow under the increased temperature and reduced rainfall conditions.


Planners, developers and architects will need to take the effects of future climate change into consideration when planning towns and developments and designing structures. African sea levels, for example, are expected to rise up to a meter by 2100, putting coastal developments at risk of flooding. The increased incidence of droughts will determine the viability of new developments in semi-arid and arid areas, and building and road structures will need to consider the impacts of increased extreme weather events.


Business, which is driven by supply and demand, will need to adapt to changes in retailers’ buying preferences, and also to a move away from a fossil fuel based economy. The world’s largest industry – the insurance industry - is a business that has already shown the need to adapt to climate change. The increased incidence of natural disasters such as floods, windstorms, thunderstorms, hail storms, ice storms, wildfires, droughts and heat waves has cut into industry profits. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was the largest single insurance industry loss ever, and was most probably a result of climate change. The insurance industry can exist in a high-risk world, but will need to be able to predict probabilities in an uncertain and changing world.

Climate change may seem more nebulous for the financial sector, but financial institutions also need to assess the safety of their investments and incorporate these issues in their credit risk processes. For example, how risky is it to invest money in an oil refinery development in China and how will weather patterns affect organizations in the agricultural sector? With moves toward cleaner energy, and carbon capture and storage, growth in investment in green technologies, and authentic green branding, new fortunes will be made and lost. Adapting the business and financial sectors to climate change will rest on creativity and courage.


To respond to the impacts of climate change, nature conservation strategies need to shift towards landscape scale management plans, with a focus on achieving connectivity between habitats across landscapes or seascapes. These “conservation corridors” allow some level of human activity, but allow species to move in response to changes in climate.

The success of such landscape scale conservation strategies is dependent on the conservation sector working hand in hand with other sectors (such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries), with government agencies, as well as with individuals and communities. As only when all stakeholders view landscape connectivity to be in their individual or collective interest will such connectivity truly be accepted and implemented. This integrated approach to conservation is climate change’s positive spin off for biodiversity and its conservation.

Climate change has also led to an increasing focus on conservation approaches that maintain ecosystem integrity for the provision of goods and services. Protecting water catchments and restoring wetlands, for example, can reduce the risk of climate-related floods and droughts, thereby protecting people’s welfare and helping to minimize the loss of life and damage to properties and other assets. One-third of the world's mangroves have been removed, and another one-third is projected to be lost in the coming decades. Protecting, as well as restoring these intact coastal ecosystems are not only a great protection against storm disasters, but also absorb and store considerable carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, mangroves and estuaries are breeding, nursing and feeding areas for a large portion of the oceans aquatic species. These ecosystem investments are likely to be highly cost-effective relative to structural alternatives such as dams and dikes and conservation planners will need to consider how to design conservation management plans to maximize the benefits from natural ecosystems.

Did you know that 3500 square miles of mangroves and swamp forests were cleared in Louisiana, USA, over the past half century? These mangroves would have greatly softened the impact of Hurricane Katrina if they were still intact.

The IUCN Red List of threatened species will need to be adapted to include species categorized as threatened by climate change. Currently there are only seven species in this category and evidence suggests that this is not an accurate reflection of the threat. IUCN is working to incorporate climate change into future surveys of species survival.

South Africa can adapt

South Africa has a history of change and is a country that adapts well to social and political changes. Once again we need to draw on our common resources and our commitment to mobilize our resources and change for the better. We need to realize that all South Africans are affected by climate change. We are all in this together!

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