Climate resilience

The death and devastation in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape this week have focused minds on SA’s limited preparedness for future climate-related emergencies.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and senior ministers rushed to comfort distraught communities and expressed their sympathy for those affected. The Treasury released emergency relief funds. Co-operative governance minister Zweli Mkhize announced the deployment of a task team to assess the damage caused to roads, bridges and other public infrastructure.

Critics’ voices have been muted, mostly bewailing the underfunding of disaster management agencies and the limited capacity of municipalities to deal with the unexpected challenges they confronted. It is surely time, however, for the government to move away from its traditional dependency on post-impact rescue, recovery and reconstruction interventions.

The president commented that “loss of life is never easy, especially when so unexpected”. This week’s specific events were not predicted, it is true, but growing vulnerability to such climate events is hardly unexpected. Post-impact disaster response is no longer enough. A more comprehensive and proactive approach could reduce the risks posed by climate disasters using prior readiness and mitigation measures.

A good start was made with the national climate change response white paper in 2011. The department of environmental affairs sponsored research into longer-term “adaption scenarios”. Such work tries to capture how the climate is likely to change and explores the impacts such changes might have on human settlements, economic activity and food security. Researchers have also explored the potential incidence of climate emergencies caused by floods, storms and droughts.

This research has been in some respects inconclusive. As climatic conditions have become increasingly variable, it has proved very difficult to predict weather patterns and abnormalities. It has been harder still to use historical data or model-based projections to predict specific impacts in such a way that local disaster relief agencies might plan for them.

There is growing interest among practitioners in “climate resilience” approaches, which emphasise the importance of broader preventative actions to mitigate the impacts of climate change events before they have taken place.

Although one cannot protect every bridge against storm damage, a road system can be designed so that unanticipated weather events are less likely to cut off whole communities from access. Water pipelines can be designed with resilience built in, so damage to one element of the system does not shut down household supplies altogether.

Municipal zoning ordinances can in principle be used to prevent people from building houses on the banks of rivers. Where this does not work, early warning systems need to be in place, so that weather service predictions are translated into urgent warnings for vulnerable households to leave.

For such preventative actions to work, communities and public institutions need to be involved in them. Parents and schools alike, for example, need to know what actions to take to keep children out of harm’s way in the event of a severe weather event.

SA is blessed with a number of energetic environmental activists, in universities, civil society organisations and the government. But one recent colloquium concluded that “knowledge generation and learning exchanges are currently taking place in … nodes of knowledge and sharing that often involve the same people”.

The department of environmental affairs, meanwhile, has notoriously limited political power. It has always been viewed as a junior partner by larger departments, whose clients have spewed out pollution largely unchecked. Its current climate adaption strategy depends entirely on the compliance — and the budgets — of other national government departments, and those of municipalities. All of these actors have other priorities. This means climate change resilience has been integrated only nominally into national development planning.

Two decades ago, during the HIV/Aids policy debacle, South Africans learned by painful experience that the government does not always cope well with science. Sometimes a single line department, such as the department of environmental affairs or the department of health, simply cannot solve a wider national challenge alone. Climate change is just as important and just as complex as HIV/Aids policy. It too needs to be driven from the presidency.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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