What does climate change mean for a coastal African country like South Africa?
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, hailed as the world’s last best chance to effectively tackle climate change, is currently underway in Glasgow. Here you can read what the conference has accomplished so far, but for the most part the developing and island countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have been left behind.
South Africa is one such country, with its biodiversity and endangered ecosystems. The country has a magnificent coastline where the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean meet on its west coast, benefiting from an incredibly rich marine fauna. So how does climate change specifically affect this type of region?
The rainbow nation’s weather is characterized by a generally warmer climate with cooler temperatures in high altitude regions. However, in recent decades we have seen a significant increase in extreme weather conditions.
This has resulted in more inland droughts for a country that is already considered to be water scarcer. Droughts and water shortages have plagued the country for decades and peaked in 2015 when Cape Town was on the verge of completely losing its water, declared a national disaster.
Coastal regions, meanwhile, are experiencing increased flooding, amid more frequent and violent thunderstorms, high winds and even tropical cyclones. Areas like the Western Cape have experienced rainfall of up to 30 millimeters. While this may seem like a welcome relief for the drought-prone province, it is actually causing localized flooding and damage to infrastructure.
Human activity has also played an important role in the degradation of South Africa’s land and seas. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) named South Africa the 11th worst country in the world for its contribution to ocean plastic. South Africa is estimated to be responsible for 109,000 tonnes of plastic reaching the ocean each year, or about 41 kg of plastic waste per citizen per year.
Global Citizen spoke with marine biologist Thembeka Shongwe to learn more about what climate change means for South Africa.
South African marine biologist, Thembeka Shongwe. Supplied.
The 25-year-old is currently pursuing her Masters in Ocean Science at the University of Cape Town. She is a young black woman who enjoys aquaculture and has a deep understanding of the marine environment and the impact of climate change on the ocean fauna and seas of South Africa. She is also newly appointed Technical Marketing Manager for Afrikelp, a company that provides algae-based solutions to improve agricultural performance.
What prompted you to pursue a career in marine biology?
I didn’t plan on doing marine biology, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I come from a small town of Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, so I have never been exposed to the ocean. I moved to Cape Town and six months after my first year of undergraduate studies there was a week where the subject was the ocean and I thought to myself it was interesting that people have a career in it. ocean.
Being a person of color, there is a lack of information in this particular career area. Back at my residence, I did research in marine biology, and the next day I changed my degree.
My story is that I found the ocean to be a place of peace, serenity and calm, and I actually wanted it to be my everyday life. This is what inspired me to pursue marine biology and I became passionate about fishing, aquaculture and creating a voice for people of color in this field – because I was the only person in color, male and female, in my class.
In your opinion, what are the biggest problems related to the oceans facing the countries of the South?
One of the major problems at the moment is overfishing, especially in southern countries. South Africa has such a beautiful and vibrant coastline; namely the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape, to KwaZulu-Natal. The Western Cape is on the Benguela Current which is characterized by a lot of hake. The fishing industry in South Africa derives most of its money from hake – we export it.
Fish stocks are dwindling because of this human activity. Of course, plastic pollution is also a major problem, but it is difficult to deal with in a developing country. One thing people might not know is that a lot of this plastic gets stuck in the ocean in huge gyres (a circular pattern of ocean currents).
Why is plastic pollution so difficult for developing countries to deal with?
This is because these countries lack the resources and technologies to tackle plastic pollution. The country’s economic situation makes it very difficult to use non-plastic products because basic needs are not yet met. Third World countries prioritize economic development and poverty reduction before considering environmental issues. Therefore, it is very difficult to tackle plastic pollution in a country where the majority are lower and middle class and are just trying to survive.
Environmental issues need awareness and money. We can educate people about the impacts of plastic pollution, but if we can’t provide them with a free alternative, we can never solve environmental problems like plastic pollution.
How have the interior areas of South Africa been affected by climate-related ocean changes?
Well, climate-related ocean changes are linked to global warming. Hot, dry places will just get hotter and drier, while damp and cold places will get wetter and cooler. Global warming is changing weather conditions.
Inland places like Limpopo and Mpumalanga are already experiencing extremely high temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. Which means that as a nation South Africa will be negatively affected because these places are where agriculture is, and we will experience more droughts. Which means farmers need to think about new ways to tackle drought.
What can the average South African do to help the planet?
My suggestions are going to sound a bit extreme, this is something that I struggle with as well. One thing the average South African can do to help the planet is cut back on meat and dairy and eat a more plant-based diet, as raising cattle is also a big contributor to global warming.
Cows produce methane and it is one of the gases that contribute to climate change. It’s hard to do because we are not a developed country, so the social implications include the loss of jobs. Young people should speak out as well and as such high school curricula should teach and prioritize climate change as it is more difficult to change an older person’s mind. The average South African can also carpool to work. Simply reduce your carbon footprint or emissions as much as possible.
If you attended COP26, what would your message be to world leaders?
Coming from a developing country, I would speak to the leaders of developed countries and urge them to invest in developing countries. It’s very easy for us to say ‘let’s fight climate change’ but on a continent like Africa many of our jobs contribute to climate change.
When we receive financial assistance, we will be able to teach people new age skills, resources and developments instead of relying on things like coal. Instead of focusing on issues like our factories, which have a lot of gas emissions, and you don’t want to trade with countries like ours, that doesn’t solve the problem. Instead, give us the money to invest in solar power or develop electric cars, etc.
It is difficult to implement solutions to climate change in our region because we are worried about the next food on our table or the money for transport for work tomorrow. Learn about climate change in South Africa from a financial perspective.
In addition to what I said earlier, developed countries must also commit to helping developing countries provide resources that will enable them to tackle plastic pollution.
How would having more women, especially women of color, in your industry help reduce climate change?
I think right now the biggest problem is the “how” and the implementation. I feel like women, especially women of color, know how to get things done. By having women of color in the climate field, it’s going to really develop the implementation of things.
The women are still standing, things are being done. They don’t just talk, they do it, because they are “how” thinkers. Having more people of color will ensure that the policies in place are implemented and that they are done right.
What message would you like to share with the citizens of the world who are looking to take action for the climate?
Everyone has Instagram. I think it’s very important to follow COP26 just so you know how it impacts you. I think people don’t want to sit down and read things that don’t really matter to them. I think it’s important that people start to personalize the things that are going on around them. We do not have a personal relationship with the land and the ocean as human beings.
This means that if you are someone who enjoys sports, think about what will happen if the temperatures have risen significantly. There will be no sport practiced! You can put things in perspective and express yourself.