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Six facts you might not know about climate change in South Africa

By Karen King

As a warm and dry country, South Africa has always been a climate stressed country. Rainfall is low compared to global averages, and the impacts of El Niño and La Niña often exacerbate prevailing conditions. Add to this the impacts of climate change, however, and the country’s current and future climatic concerns become even more acute.

According to the Centre for Environmental Rights, the interior of Southern Africa, including South Africa, is warming at about twice the global average rate. The region is likely to become both warmer and drier over time, and some of the effects of this are likely to be devastating. In my work across the country, it is clear that three interconnected, climate-related challenges — rising temperatures, droughts and floods — are becoming more frequent and more severe. 

South Africa also ranked poorly in the Climate Change Performance Index 2024, sitting at 45th out of 67 countries. It is among the nine countries responsible for 90% of global coal production, which is incompatible with the 1.5°C target.

We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves on climate change and to try to curb its impacts. To get you started, here are some facts about climate change in South Africa you might not know.

1. Climate change doesn’t affect voting behaviour

Despite its impact on our everyday life, South Africans didn’t consider climate change a key voting issue during the recent 2024 elections. Almost all major parties made only a cursory acknowledgement of climate change in their manifestos, and barely mentioned it in their campaigning. This is ironic, since climate change has the potential to exacerbate load-shedding and energy security in South Africa, which are among the country’s most serious voting issues.

As we look to the future and decide who will govern us, we neglect climate change at our peril.

2. Climate change is a socio-economic issue

The risks of climate change in South Africa aren’t purely environmental, but also socio-economic. The country’s high levels of poverty make millions of people vulnerable to losing their lives, livelihoods and homes. Poorly constructed houses can’t handle the temperatures, droughts, and floods that climate change is bringing with it. Adding to this, residents often battle to secure access to the water, food, sanitation and healthcare they need in the aftermath of these events.

The migration of people from rural areas that are at the mercy of the elements to cities is placing pressure on urban infrastructure that is ill-equipped for this influx. This runs the risk of increasing levels of poverty and making social tensions and economic instability worse.

3. Women and children are among the most vulnerable

Globally, women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities are more likely to bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change. South Africa is no exception, where women are more likely to live further below the poverty line than men. They’re far more likely than men to undertake unpaid care work or be responsible for household chores, which, in the face of climate change, increases their labour burden and gives them limited access to resources.

Today, women in areas heavily affected by droughts must travel further for water and are less likely to be able to migrate because they lack the financial means. As resource scarcity gets worse, it also places women at greater risk of domestic violence — which is its own critical issue in the country.

4. Inadequate infrastructure is exacerbating the impacts of climate change

Rainfall patterns in South Africa are regionalised and vary dramatically from place to place. Generally speaking, however, in instances where rainfall has intensified as a result of climate change, the country’s inadequate stormwater system planning and maintenance is making things worse. This was certainly the case during Durban’s devastating floods in 2022, where existing systems were unable to cope with the unexpected rainfall the province experienced.

As climate change threatens energy infrastructure, roads and bridges, pre-emptive monitoring and quick and effective repairs become even more important. However, South Africa is not yet at the stage where it is able to climate-proof its infrastructure adequately.

5. The toll on how people earn a living is immense

Temperatures, floods and droughts are having devastating effects on people’s livelihoods. Commercial and subsistence farmers are seeing declining results, with droughts and erratic rainfall patterns reducing crop yields and livestock productivity. Fishing and tourism in coastal areas have also been affected by extreme weather events, and higher temperatures are negatively affecting already constrained energy supplies, increasing costs and reducing job opportunities.

Individuals and businesses are experiencing damage to their properties and are struggling with an unreliable supply of essential resources, like water.

6. Strong policies are hamstrung by their execution

South Africa has several good policies, frameworks and initiatives in place to help curb the impacts of climate change. Earlier this year, the long-awaited Climate Change Bill, which aims to provide an integrated and coordinated response to climate change, was finally passed. Despite having these adequate policies in place, however, implementation has been poor, and as a result the benefits of these policies remain largely out of reach.

So, what lies ahead? 

An increase in the frequency and severity of climate change impacts is inevitable. And as a result, climate resilience and the transition to a low-emissions economy have to be national priorities. These efforts need to be done in a way that considers the needs of and seeks to uplift the country’s most vulnerable people.

This responsibility rests on the shoulders of government, the private sector, and South Africa’s citizenry. We all have a role to play in trying to mitigate these effects. We owe it to our land and to each other.

Karen King is the Climate Resilience Director for Royal HaskoningDHV. Royal HaskoningDHV is an independent, international engineering and project management consultancy with 140 years of experience and 6 000 colleagues across the globe. In 2022, Royal HaskoningDHV celebrated 100 years in South Africa.

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