Preparing for the worst: will your city survive climate change?

Yolandi Groenewald examines data on how South African cities are dealing with the risks of climate change. While most are aware of the threats, she finds they might not be adapting fast enough.

SOUTH African cities are grappling with less water, more flooding, runaway fires and sizzling temperatures due to climate change. Official scenarios for the future predict these impacts will be felt most acutely in cities, where extra investment is needed to prepare for increasing disruption.

Decisions about investment in urban infrastructure, buildings and land use taken now will have huge implications for development outcomes in the future. They could prove critical in preventing cities from being locked into unsustainable development pathways that will expose them to increasingly intense and frequent urban shocks and stresses.

Investing in the right decisions for the future takes up resources, both in management and capital. To assess if South African cities are preparing for the worst, ClimaTracker scrutinised published adaptation data sets and sent questionnaires to eight municipalities.

“Climate change will have significant impacts on the availability of water in our city.”

All the municipalities surveyed indicated that creating resilience to the threats of climate change should be a priority. Many of them said increasing collaboration between different departments is key to ensuring that the correct policies are drawn up and implemented.

Data compiled for internal climate change reports and for external compliance monitoring bodies indicates city authorities are well aware of the threats of climate change, but putting that knowledge into action by mainstreaming resilience projects, allocating funds and accessing financing remain challenges.

Drought: Cape Town

Cape Town is dealing with the dual challenges of unprecedented drought and increased water demand due to population growth, urbanisation and economic development.

The city, which is home to around 3.7 million people, also identifies heatwaves and flooding as climate risks.

“People are moving out of villages and into cities at a pace unprecedented in history,” says Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities network, which is helping cities around the world to adapt to climate change.

Cape Town has set up a working group comprised of representatives from relevant city departments to facilitate collaboration on climate projects at administrative level. Their decisions feed into a dedicated council committee on climate change.

The city has appointed a chief resilience officer, Craig Kesson, and has included a climate adaptation response in its 2017-2022 industrial development plan.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille says the city is reviewing its 30-year water plan. “Climate change will have significant impacts on the availability of water in our city and the current drought provides us with the perfect opportunity to focus our minds on the appropriate responses.”

Previously climate change issues fell under a more general environmental policy, but because of their growing importance they require a more dedicated approach, De Lille says.

A water-saving programme targets both technical and behavioural changes. This includes public awareness campaigns about water use efficiency, water tariffs designed to encourage water savings, the promotion of the use of recycled water for irrigation, as well as a range of technical interventions to minimise water losses.

“People are moving out of villages and into cities at a pace unprecedented in history”

Particularly vital and socially inclusive elements include offering free plumbing repairs for low-income households and training “community plumbers”. More than 4 000 households have been visited for leak detections and repairs, and 258km of water pipes have been replaced to reduce leaks.

The city says the programme has been a success, as water demand has grown at an average of 1.78% compared to an average growth of more than 4% before implementation.

While Cape Town’s coastline is one of the city’s most important assets, it is also a source of risk due to rising sea levels and storms. City adaptation measures include a “coastal set-back line”, which ensures that development does not encroach on the coastal biodiversity and now protects more than 240km of coastline.


Rising seas - Ethekwini

Ethekwini municipality, home to South Africa’s third largest city, Durban, is dealing with coastal erosion, rising sea levels and extreme storms.

Durban’s average annual temperature increase is expected to be between 1.5°C and 2.5°C by 2065, with the outer west areas predicted to experience increases in short duration rainfall which may lead to flooding. Heat waves are also expected to increase.

The city has a chief resilience officer, Dr Debra Roberts, whose main goal is to maintain coastal ecological infrastructure as a buffer against sea level rises and coastal storms.

Durban’s coastal built environment is protected where appropriate, and further development is discouraged in high risk areas.

Storms and flooding – Ekurhuleni

In Gauteng the Ekurhuleni municipality is dealing with heat waves, urban flooding and severe storms.

City planner Freddie Aucamp says high-risk flooding areas have been identified and community awareness campaigns have been launched.

A green infrastructure sustainability guideline has been drawn up to improve storm water management. As temperatures soar, emergency and health systems are being improved to cope with the fall-out, he says.

Population growth in South Africa

population

South Africa: population forecast

Capture

Infrastucture planning - Johannesburg & Tshwane

City managers have to build climate resilience while dealing with an influx of new citizens who have to be protected against the threats of climate change. Johannesburg, the economic heartland of South Africa, receives an estimated 10 000 new citizens each month and many of them find a home in the city’s informal settlements, where they are most at risk to the effects of climate change.

These risks are only likely to increase in the years ahead, the city’s climate change response team believes and, like Ekurhuleni, the city has invested significant resources to fix its storm water drainage system.

Tshwane city management is dealing with the same issues as its two Gauteng neighbours, and has included an additional focus on water resource management, encouraging the restoration of wetlands, rainwater harvesting and improved sewage treatment.

Tshwane has focused attention on early warning systems. Listing hailstorms and heatwaves as increasing threats, the city highlights the need to inform its citizens timeously about impending disasters through SMSes.

Investment critical

All the cities and municipalities surveyed say investment is critical if adaptation strategies are to be successful.

Excellence in leadership and management are identified as critical skills needed to protect urban citizens against the threats climate change present.

* This Oxpeckers Investigation for #ClimaTracker was written by Yolandi Groenewald, graphics by Wayne Bks; data visualisations by Elisabetta Tola and map by David Lemayian.

It was produced in partnership with Code for Africa and the International Center for Journalists. Funded by ImpactAfrica.

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