The Impact of Climate Change in Africa

Integral Ecology | Wed, Dec 7, 2011

By Sean McDonagh
Source: Durban, South Africa

Sean McDonagh, SSC, continues his reports from Durban, South Africa with a look at the impacts of climate change on Africa.



COP 17 which is the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is now in the middle of its second week here in Durban, South Africa.  The pace of the negotiations has been stepped up, but no one is betting that a comprehensive, ambitious and legally binding treaty will emerge by Friday night.  South African officials are nudging their colleagues to produce some worthwhile compromises at the conference, so that at least something can be salvaged from the negotiations.


South Africa


South Africa itself is suffering from the effects of climate change, so understanding the dynamics involved in shaping climate is very important.  Professor Themba Dube is the senior manager at the South African Weather Service (SAWS).  He explained some of the complexity in trying to determine what the weather patterns will be in a country like South Africa which is situated between two oceans, the Atlantic on its western shores and the Indian Ocean in the east. 


In June 2011, the temperature in the Pacific Ocean began to warm up.  This would normally indicate that an El Nino effect was beginning. When an El Nino occurs, it is normally wet in the equatorial America and dry over Africa, because the air pressure rises there and falls in Africa. The major cloud bands of Africa are pushed out into the Indian Ocean, leaving much of Africa dry.


But this year there has been a sudden change to a neutral El Nino-Southern Oscillation  (ENSO), which is associated with the La Nina phenomenon.  Now it is dry over the Americas while it is wet in Africa.  Professor Dube pointed out that the ENSO is the single most determining feature for predicting weather patterns over South Africa,


The SAWS is also very much involved in collecting and collating data from its many weather, rainfall and climate stations situated right across the country.  Luckily for South Africa, climate data records go back over 150 years.  The National Climatological Database for the period from 1911 to 2009 revealed that there has been a significant increase in annual mean temperatures in most regions, with an increase in extreme events and a decrease in frost days. This temperature increase is impacting wind patterns which, in turn, have a knock-on effect on rainfall distribution. Professor Themba Dube says that computer models predict that the western section of the country will become drier with a reduction in rainfall of between 20mm to 60mm, while the eastern seaboard of KwaZulu-Natal will become wetter by as much as 60mm by 2050.


The Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued in 2001 carried research from a South African hydrologist which predicted that, as a result of economic growth, energy consumption and population increase, South Africa will be classified as a water-scarce country by 2050.  However, Professor Themba Dube believes that when climate change is included in the accounting equation, the period of serious water shortage could begin as early as 2025.


COP 17


Here at COP 17 progress is still very slow.  On December 6th 2011, President Jacob Zuma (the South African President) appealed to the negotiators to ‘save the world from Climate Change.’  He said that he believed that the negotiators did not want to disappoint the citizens of the world, who know that the world is in danger and know that something drastic needs to be done. Actions in this area speak much louder than words and the South African government does not have a great record itself in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 80 per cent of electricity comes from burning coal which is abundant in South Africa.


The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon also appealed to the Ministers and senior negotiators to “pull back from the abyss” before it is too late. In his speech he said that, “without exaggeration, we can say that the future of the planet is at stake …including the very survival of some nations.” Many islands in the Pacific and elsewhere were in danger of slipping beneath the waves.”  He went on to say that he had seen dried-up lakes in North Africa and the Americas, and that he had met thousands of people who had lost their homes to floods or the spread of deserts. “Is this the future we want? A world out of control, climate change and a devastating scarcity of vital resources,” he asked the delegates.


Addressing the ministers and negotiators he said, “You are the people who can bring us back from the edge.”  Yet despite the overwhelming need to act based on current climate experience in many parts of the world and the latest scientific data, Ban Ki-moon seemed to be resigned to the prospect that a legally binding climate change agreement “maybe beyond our reach – for now.”  The main players blocking such an agreement are the United States and Canada on the one side and China, India, Brazil on the other.