THOUGHT PIECE for Xtinct MagazinePhoto Credit: Solly LeviDr Andrew MuirWhat is climate change and global warming and how does it affect us living here in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa?Climate change is a complex issue and when scientists start talking in acronyms and code speak, we get confused and at times fearful of something that feels so much larger and bigger than anything we can handle and so we simply do nothing and hope it will all go away. In reality our climate is in a constant state of change; temperatures have risen and fallen throughout history. These natural variations are caused by many different natural phenomenon including changes in the earth’s orbit, volcanic eruptions, changes in the sun’s intensity and natural weather cycles such as El Nino.
There can, however, be no doubt that human-induced global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation is the cause of the extreme temperatures in the last few decades. As a sobering example, since recorded global temperature readings began roughly 135 years ago, the previous decade was the hottest one recorded so far. I remember visiting Montana's Glacier National Park in the USA with Dr Ian Player in the early 90’s, which when it was formed in 1850 had 150 glaciers within the park. Today, the number has dropped to 25 and within a decade they will all be gone. Closer to home, Africa’s three remaining glacial regions found on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be permanently lost within a span of 20 years.
According to the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2021) the science of climate change is unequivocal, and to quote “it is happening, it is anthropogenic in cause, and we are currently on worst case trajectories which unabated, in terms of global surface temperature represents a 3-4°C+ increase above the 20th century average temperature, by around mid-century”.

Even ‘best case’ scenarios have us reaching 1.5°C within 10-20 years, given the greenhouse gases already emitted and ‘committed to’ in terms of near-term future emissions. The evidence seems clear, whilst there are uncertainties about how bad climate change is going to get, and how fast and how these impacts will be felt, and by whom, there are no illusions that the climate is changing and warming rapidly, and it is doing so relative to our emissions of greenhouse gases. In essence, if we have had a part to play in our climate deterioration, we have an active part to play in a global and local (Eastern Cape) solution.

So, to answer the second part of the question, how will this affect us living in Nelson Mandela Bay and the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa? According to recent analysis done by well-known environmental futurist and climate change expert, Prof Nick King, Southern Africa as an already warm, sub-tropical, and semi-arid region, will be harder hit than temperate regions. In forecasting our coastal regions, he predicts (Western and Eastern Cape) - and to quote from his report ‘Climate Change Implications for SA’s Youth (King 2021)’ - that between 2021 – 2040 water for basic needs will almost certainly become increasingly unavailable. In reality as I edit this piece for Xtinct Magazine, Nelson Mandela Bay is literally 20 days away from becoming Africa’s first mayor city to run out of water as our major holding dams that fed this 1.5 million people metropole our now less than 2% full of useable water.

Whilst desalination may provide a short- to medium-term option, in the longer term the vulnerability of coastal infrastructure to extreme storm events will very likely negate this option. Residents of expanding informal settlements will spend much of their days waiting in queues for tanker water. Public service infrastructure such as roads, water and sanitation, health, education, and electricity services will very likely be continuously damaged by extreme events, becoming increasingly costly and unaffordable to repair and replace. As these stresses on infrastructure compound, service delivery will almost certainly decline, especially access to electricity and water, and health and education services for children. Temperature increases in the oceans together with acidification will negatively impact marine living resources.

Photo Credit: Michelly RallThese will mostly shift ranges and/or die out, affecting the livelihoods of all who depend on them directly for food and income. In addition, collapse of coral reefs and other marine and coastal tourist attractions such as penguin, shark and whale watching will very likely close this sector. Most associated jobs will likely be lost. Rising sea levels exacerbated by increasing storm surges will almost certainly inundate coastal areas, estuaries, and coastal infrastructure. As evidenced in other countries, government at all levels will very likely be unable to overcome the public resistance to implementing the required ‘managed retreats’ of people and infrastructure away from the coastline. However, insurance companies will no longer insure private property below the proposed new setback lines, causing mayhem in the property market.

One of South Africa’s main goals at the recent COP26 negotiations in Glasgow is gaining the finance for adaptation and mitigation, in hopes of protecting our infrastructure and coastal cities. COP26 was touted to be the most ambitious COP yet, with countries expected to agree on drastic measures to maintain the 1.5 °C global average temperature strategy agreed on at COP15 in Paris in 2015. In reality it is debatable how successful this was, in his opening to COP26, David Attenborough said that our motivation to do something about this crisis should not be based on fear but on hope.

At a local municipality level, we need to put mitigation and adaptation measures in place to reduce the impact of what Prof King and other experts forecast on current projections and we must implement them urgently. To this end, Dr Jackie Raw, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Nelson Mandela University, writes that one of the ways in which coastal cities can look to adapt is through spatial land-use planning to prohibit or restrict new construction or infrastructure along areas predicted to be affected by sea-level rise and/or flooding. NMBM must work to keep vacant land that might be at risk of climate change impacts free from development and save lives in this way.
In her work Dr Raw refers to mitigation plans and that includes “nature-based” solutions to the sea-level rise and storm surges. These would include using so called ‘soft engineering’ approaches and restoring natural areas that can serve as buffers against the impacts of sea-level rise. The City of Durban for example uses beach nourishment to provide sand to the city beaches, while also attempting to provide a natural buffer in the form of small back-beach sand dunes.
Opting for soft buffers such as rehabilitating coastal dunes with dune vegetation and giant sandbags to adapt to sea-level rise is more than likely the most economical and practical solution for less wealthier metros like Nelson Mandela Bay, rather than looking to expensive seawalls which have their own challenges such as the loss of beach sand.

Water conservation, harvesting optimally water from roofs and surfaces when it does rain (enforcing this in municipal bylaws like is done in other water stressed metropolis like Windhoek), recycling and reusing grey water are all actions we need to implement on scale in our metro as soon as possible. As climate forecasting models clearly show us, within the next decade or two we will no longer be able to rely on inland water catchment sources and systems like Lake Gariep and Nooitgedacht low level water schemes as we do now for reliable sources of portable water, as the catchments feeding these in turn become severely constrained due to warming events.

My rudimentary science tells me that this may be too early to tell or predict with precise accuracy what the prospects are for Nelson Mandela Bay and South Africa more broadly, but common sense would tell us that the precautionary principle applies, and we need to look at how we as a coastal City cope and adapt to our changing climate and environment and plan and prepare accordingly now in order to safeguard our future.
Nelson Mandela Bay based Dr Andrew Muir is CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, a national Conservation and Leadership NGO and immediate past President of Nelson Mandela Business Chamber.