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SA on a climate change collision course

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The fact that climate change is a real problem may be up for debate among denialists, but that the fact that the world has seen many extreme weather patterns over the past few years is undeniable. Not only do the denialists ignore the evidence of increasing levels of flooding, drought, typhoons and other extreme weather, but they are ignoring the scientists who have studied these phenomena and found that the world’s weather patterns are changing as a result of a variety of factors – primarily human.

Climate change collision courseTime will tell if the denialists will also ignore the effects of climate change on human health. Almost 20 years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a study that measured the impact of climate change on human health worldwide. Climate-sensitive health effects such as diarrhoea, malaria, the effects of inland and coastal flooding and malnutrition were modelled and compared to figures taken from 1990. The results were definitive: Climate change was changing mortality rates as a result of the increasing occurrence of these factors.

In fact, southern Africa was found to be the region with the highest mortality rates from climate change in the period studied. Professor Rebecca Garland, principal researcher of the climate studies modelling and environmental health research group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says that the WHO study only looked at a partial list of health impacts, but that the high impact of climate change on southern Africa still indicates a potentially serious public health problem.

The CSIR recently released the second edition of its South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas, which aims to help South Africa’s economic and social sectors “take informed decisions to avoid risks related to climate change”. “South Africa is facing an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, dry spells, heat waves and severe thunderstorms. These have the potential to increase vector-borne diseases and lead to food, energy and water insecurity, which will consequently threaten livelihoods,” the report states.

According to Garland, Africa has already seen warming and it is likely that temperature increases over this continent will increase at a rate faster than the projected increase of global temperatures. These increasing temperatures have the potential to negatively affect human health in the future, she says.

Projections highlight that sub-tropical northern and sub-tropical southern Africa are expected to see the largest increases in maximum temperature and are “hot spots” for increases in heatwave days. This will not only increase the likelihood of bacteria and viruses proliferating, but also cause more “heat stress” which would have implications for humans‚ agriculture and livestock.

According to the CSIR report‚ the increase in average temperature in South Africa is projected to occur in association with an increase in very hot days (when the temperature exceeds 35°C) and heatwave events. “The occurrence of fires is [also] closely linked with climate‚ and increases in temperature combined with an increase in dry spells in some areas may result in wildfires affecting larger areas and fires of increased intensity and severity‚” the report states.

In a country that is already struggling with water scarcity, this is a warning that we may experience more droughts in the future. One of the CSIR researchers points out that even if South Africa gets good rainfall over the next few years, higher temperatures mean more evaporation.

The CSIR says it is critically important for planners and decision-makers to move from “reactive crisis management approaches” to proactive climate change and disaster risk management approaches. In light of the current water shortages plaguing Cape Town, this should be a priority for national government. However, in a country struggling to house all of its citizens – a country whose health system is already strained to breaking point – the chance of prioritising climate-related issues is far smaller than it should be.

Image credit: Copyright: dimol / 123RF Stock Photo

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