SA faces climate risk from land use

2011-12-08 14:57
Cape Town - A South African study on the risk of climate change has revealed that governance and changing land use contributed in equal or greater measure to the risk from extreme weather events.

The report, which was commissioned by insurer Santam, found that as climate change takes effect, there are communities in SA that are particularly vulnerable to risk from floods and fires.

"Local ecological impact in the local landscapes had an equal or greater effect on risk," WWF ecologist Deon Nel told News24.

He studied various areas in the country and said that the risk from climate change was a reality that would alter the way insurers do business.

Delegates at the COP 17 climate conference in Durban are hoping to secure climate funding of $100bn to help developing nations adapt to climate change.


The fund's structure and funding parameters are being debated, and hopes are fading that the conference will conclude with any meaningful deal.

According to the report, it is imperative that municipalities develop areas in a way that takes into account the ecology of a particular area.

For example, the area of Sedgefield in the southern Cape was particularly vulnerable to flood and fire damage because of changes to the environment, the report found.

"We showed that local land use changes that had happened in that area over the last two decades had an equal or slightly greater effect on flood risk," said Nel, who was formerly a researcher with the CSIR.

The felling of trees in the area had contributed to increased exposure to floods and the proliferation of alien plants like pines had resulted in changes in the soil chemistry during fires, which also increased flood risk exposure.

Nel said that the resin in pine trees significantly hardens the soil after a fire, and this had a direct impact on the severity of floods.

"The spread of alien invasive trees contributed to the increase in the biomass in that area. If you've got more biomass or trees in an area, you've got far more intense fires," he added.


Nationally, SA faced a climate risk from increasing temperatures, particularly during winter.

"We've seen a significant increase in winter temperatures over the last 100 years in South Africa and we're likely to see about a 1.5°C to 2°C increase to 2050 in the country," Nel said.

He also said that rainfall would become more erratic and rising sea levels would have an impact on coastal communities.

"The second big driver is this variability in rainfall, particularly in the eastern part of the country, but also stretching down into the southern coast.

"The third big driver is sea level rise and we have a recorded sea level rise."

The team observed that between 2002 and 2010, there were six waves in excess of 8m off the Cape coast, compared to only two in the previous eight years.

There was also an increased risk of flooding of coastal areas because of the destruction of the dune system in many parts of the country, Nel said.


"For wave run-up we're able to show that wave run-up will increase significantly, mostly as a result of sea level rise and some result of increase of wave heights and storminess as well."

Poor governance in vulnerable areas has exposed these to a greater environmental risk.

According to Nel, there needs to be a better assessment of local environments before municipalities decide on developments.

"One needs to develop in an ecologically sensitive way. One which enhances the services that those ecological services provided to you. We should build in a way that enhances that ecological capacity as opposed to destroying it."

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    santam  |  durban  |  cop 17  |  climate change

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