By the 1950s, variables of the human imprint started to show in terms of an increase in carbon dioxides, nitrogen oxides and many of the biogeochemicals that made up the planet, really started to change. For variables like climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen almost changed the way the planet worked and looked. This era was dubbed the Anthropocene era, i.e. humans had dominated the planet to the extent of a geological force.
In the Anthropocene era, by 2030, nine billion people would need to be fed, disaster risks would need to be reduced, and there would need to be a transition to low carbon societies to mitigate climate change. The era would need healthy, resilient and productive cities, improved human health, adapting to a warmer world, sustainable consumption and production patterns, an increase of societal resilience to future threats and income and innovation opportunities through transformations to global sustainability. This would require a science that was less about curiosity and more about problem solving and finding solutions. It would also require scientists from different disciplines to work together. These were global challenges and it required it a global effort.
South Africa was a water scarce country and one of the few countries in Africa that was projected to have severe scarcity in the future. Studies showed that 8% of land area provided 50% of the surface water. Escaped invasive alien trees increased fuel loads substantially and used more water than indigenous vegetation. Large stands of cleared timber plantations showed decreased soil permeability from pine resin and permeability was made worse by fire. Coordinating ecosystem-based management would improve grazing livelihoods and live stock were key assets for communal households. Communal rangelands were central to livestock production and could be applied by government departments. It would identify grazing hotspots for agricultural conservation purposes and prioritised data for programmes such as National Land Care and Working for Water.
The Committee commended the presentation and CSIR. The Committee focused on the water resources in the country and the possible impact of fracking on these resources. Invasive alien plant species were discussed and Members specifically enquired about the woodlands in KwaZulu-Natal that had been overtaken by pine trees. The CSIR explained that the forestry sector was an important sector for economic growth and employment. Those trees were brought into the country to grow the economy and the industry and nobody knew then of the fire risks and that it used so much water. It was important to keep the sector economically viable, but it was equally as important o manage the impact on the environment.
The Chairperson welcomed everyone to the meeting.
Briefing by the Natural Resources and the Environment Unit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
Dr Belinda Reyers, Chief Scientist, CSIR, showed a graph of temperatures over the last 100 000 years, which showed it was a lot colder and variable environment. About 10 000 years ago it settled down to much of the temperatures and conditions experienced currently and this period was referred to as the Holocene. The Holocene was not only a climate-friendly time; it was also a bio-diversity friendly time. The planet was inhibited with very useful animal and plant species that could be domesticated for agricultural use. It was also a time when most of the rain forests, that had mostly covered the earth before that, massively retreated and had been replaced by grasslands and savannahs that were fundamental to agricultural and urban systems.
During this time, humans managed to proliferate and grow enormously as a population of a few million in the early Holocene to the 7 billion today. As the population grew, so did the skills and capabilities and humans became really good at extracting more water, more energy and producing more food. Dr Reyers showed a graph to that effect, which also showed a sudden upswing during the 1950s, just after the Second World War. This illustrated how good people were getting at living good lives and this period was referred to as the Great Acceleration. At the same time, variables of the human imprint started to show in terms of an increase in carbon dioxides, nitrogen oxides and many of the biogeochemicals that made up the planet, really started to change. This led many people to believe that ‘we were leaving the Holocene’, because the world was changing in substantial ways. Dr Reyers showed a graph showing which variables had moved out of the Holocene conditions. For variables like climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen, movement had been so far out of Holocene conditions that it almost changed the way the planet worked and looked. This era was dubbed the Anthropocene era, i.e. humans had dominated the planet to the extent of a geological force.
In the Anthropocene era, by 2030, nine billion people would need to be fed, disaster risks would need to be reduced and there would need to be a transition to low carbon societies to mitigate climate change. The era would need healthy, resilient and productive cities, improved human health, adapting to a warmer world, sustainable consumption and production patterns, an increase of societal resilience to future threats and income and innovation opportunities through transformations to global sustainability. This would require a science that was less about curiosity and more about problem solving and finding solutions. It would also require scientists from different disciplines to work together. These were global challenges that required it a global effort.
Future Earth, recently launched, was a global research platform providing the knowledge and support to accelerate our transformations to a sustainable world. It inspired and created groundbreaking interdisciplinary science relevant to priority sustainability challenges. Future Earth delivered key policy-relevant products to these challenges and pioneered approaches to the co-design and co-production of solution-oriented global change science. This platform enabled and mobilised capacities to work in these new ways, across genders, geographies and generations.
CSIR Principal Researcher, Dr Luthando Dziba said the work of CSIR contributed to the National Development Plan (NDP), disaster management and communal livelihoods. South Africa was a water scarce country and was one of the few countries in Africa that was projected to have severe scarcity in the future. A few years ago the CSIR led a process of conservation planning in the water resources area. It showed that 8% land area provided 50% of the surface water. Escaped invasive alien trees increased fuel loads substantially and used more water than indigenous vegetation. Large stands of cleared timber plantations showed decreased soil permeability from pine resin and permeability was made worse by fire.
Coordinating ecosystem-based management would improve grazing livelihoods and livestock were key assets for communal households. Communal rangelands were central to livestock production and could be applied by government departments. It would identify grazing hotspots for agricultural conservation purposes and prioritised data for programmes like National Land Care and Working for Water.
Dr A Lotriet (DA) said the CSIR focused mainly on surface water and she asked what about the impact humans had on subterranean water reserves, specifically in terms of fracking. She asked if the CSIR was doing any type of research to mitigate possible damages fracking could have on the water supply in South Africa.
Dr Dziba said the prioritisation of fresh water resources and the research that had been done took into account ground water in its totality. There was still more research to be done on ground water in South Africa, especially on those places that had limited fresh water resources and the managing of water resources was critical in those areas. There was a group at CSIR that worked with water resources specifically and they would perhaps be better placed to give a more detailed presentation on the water status. It would be shared with the group and more information would be provided to the Committee. Science had shown that fracking would have substantial impact on ground water resources and Dr Dziba would have to consult with the scientists at CSIR to give the Committee the details on how far their research was on this subject. The impact of acid mine drainage was another area that was of interest to the country’s ground water resources and CSIR had done research in that area. A report was available that scientists from various institutions in South Africa, including the CSIR, had contributed to. The CSIR was reviving investment and capacity to work on acid mine drainage, in particular, but also on post mining landscapes in general. The aim was to see how the management of these landscapes could be improved and to mitigate the negative impacts extracting of resources usually left in the communities. More work needed to go into investing and understanding the country’s ground water resources and coupling that with the fresh water systems. It was important to understand the whole water value chain in South Africa, because it spoke both to the reduced quantity of water, and addressed the management and quality of the water. Acid mine drainage did not necessarily affect the quantity of water, but impacted on the quality due to the pollution by the mineral resources. This type of information should be readily available, because it informed planning.
Ms J Terblanche (DA) said Sappi was a major company that brought in revenue and contributed to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It took about 6% of a tree to produce one ream or 500 sheets of paper and she asked how this problem would be addressed. In the KwaZulu-Natal woodlands there used to be vast biodiversity; pine trees had overtaken it. It had a similar effect as the wattles, because nothing grew under them and the trees absorbed a lot of water and the soil was only usable for a certain period of time. She asked what could be done, because even in Parliament, huge amounts of paper were used and the recycle programme in place was seemingly not enough.
Dr Reyers said the forestry sector was an important sector for economic growth and employment. Those trees were brought into the country to grow the economy and the industry and nobody knew then of the fire risks and that they used so much water. The question was how to keep the sector economically viable, but also to manage the impact on the environment. Although tablets also had their own impact on the environment, decoupling work from paper and recycling were possible strategies. Another strategy would be on how and where these plantations were managed. In the Western Cape pine tree plantations had been removed from water scarce areas, because of their impact on the water resources. The CSIR had been working with forestry companies on how plantations were managed in terms of felling practices and how to curb the invasion of alien plant species. It was not enough to leave forestry up to forestry scientists. Water, technology and development scientists were needed to balance economic empowerment with the protection of the environment.
Mr N Koornhof (ANC) asked what happened 10 000 years ago before the movement into a more tolerable climate. If climate change was managed successfully and the two poles were stabilized, he asked if it was possible that there would be another ice age. He asked if the ‘Great Acceleration’ was kick started by the war and he said the word ‘Holocene’ was not far removed from ‘holocaust’ if the environment was not protected for future generations.
Dr Reyers responded that the Holocene was a fascinating subject for scientists and the evidence was that approximately 10 000 years ago, the last ice age ended. Ice ages were caused by limited amounts of sunlight and solar radiation reaching the planet. It seemed to have changed 10 000 years ago due to a combination of causes such as atmospheric changes, distance from the sun and it also seemed that the ice retreated. The debate was still out on whether this was just an ‘inter-glacial’ period between ice ages or whether that was the end of the ice age. It was a valid question, but there was much divided opinion and no clear answer at this point. The ‘Great Acceleration’ after the war was also a topic under debate. One of the stances was that it allowed women to enter the workplace for the first time, because all the men were away. It was also said that science and technology that was developed for war was now available to other areas like the links between weapon manufacturing and the ability to develop better fertilizer. In that way, wars were ‘hot spots’ for innovation and at that time it led to massive innovation in industry, agriculture and other areas. It was important to make decisions now that would chart the future, because climate change would be good for some people, but it was unlikely to benefit South Africa.
Mr C Mathale (ANC) commended the presentation and said he recently read an article that said the human race faced a future where there would be days without light. It would lead to plummeting temperatures and natural disasters and scientists should be dynamic when addressing these mysteries of the environment.
Dr Dziba said he believed in the resilience of South Africa to respond to the changes in the environment, as well as the country’s ability to capacitate in anticipation of these changes. Things taken for granted in the past like building houses right on the seafront had been addressed by municipal buffer zones and the protection of dunes. The City of New York had constructed dunes on the seafront and although that construction was negatively received by people who wanted sea views, in the wake of ‘Hurricane Sandy’ it was found that those areas suffered much less destruction. Science needed to inform planning and policies and how to adapt to make communities more resilient in the face of the changing climate.
Ms L Maseko (ANC) said the balance between the environment and development was a catch 22 situation and asked where Africa was during the rapid development after the war. She said the presentation highlighted the importance of coordination between the environmental and agricultural sectors and asked if CSIR had the capacity, or could develop capacity, to advise those sectors. The Committee fully supported the proposal that 1.5% of the GDP should be spent on research and development and she asked what could be done to promote the catchment of water.
Dr Dziba said the presentation focused on global averages, but it was a different stage for Africa, especially in terms of the political seasoning. Now, societal challenges would be looked at from a much more integrated way where social sciences and physical sciences would be assimilated. All the signs were there that the African acceleration was beginning now. Africa’s development pathways could be different and the work that was being done now could potentially pave the way for development scenarios that were less damaging to communities. The CSIR Act mandated the Council to contribute to the development of the country and the NDP. The CSIR had advised the departments of Water and Sanitation and Environmental Affairs on specific areas and memoranda of understanding had been signed with both departments. Both Dr Dziba and Dr Reyers also advised on international treaties in biodiversity and ecosystem areas and sat on international science committees and provided support to national delegations when attending conventions. The CSIR was positioned as an institution that supported government and there was a growing recognition that CSIR’s work could contribute to better decision making for future planning. In the current planning cycle for CSIR, each unit had to look at the NDP to assess how the country could be helped to respond to areas relevant to the work of CSIR. The Council hoped to advise all the relevant line departments in CSIR’s capable areas, as well as growing the areas where there was no capability. Guidance was needed to streamline the capacity in specific areas because a growing investment in science or in research and development also meant growing capabilities in terms of infrastructure, institutions to manage the expanded research and the development portfolio, but also growing people to do the research.
The Chairperson agreed with Mr Mathale and said it was a dynamic environment, because even if laws and policies were made, it would have to change as circumstances changed. This type of research, by South Africans, for South Africa, spoke directly to the NDP. He asked that the two doctoral students in the CSIR’s delegation also comment.
CSIR PhD student, Ms Ilse Kotzee, said humans and nature were part of an interdependent system and as humans; we were dependant on the benefits that nature provided. It was a complex and integrated system and our actions in one part of the system would have trade-offs or consequences in another part of the system. As we became more aware of our impact on nature, it was important to change our management systems. A lot of the felling of pine trees was done in winter when there was lots of rainfall, but because there were no trees anymore to capture some of the water, floods became a risk. The thinking now centred on humans in nature, rather than how human could control nature.
CSIR PhD student, Mr Odirilwe Selomane, said there was a lot of recognition that economics was placed within the environment. The environment included sources of food, water and health. Development could be placed on a non-destructive and sustainable path, while still improving food security, health and the overall human condition. It did not have to be one or the other.
Mr Mathale briefly referred to the challenges the CSIR might face, decisions made now should be made for the benefit of future generations. Essentially it meant that Africa as a Continent had the opportunity to develop, but development should not come at the cost of our natural resources.
Dr Dziba said investment in research and development was usually the first to suffer when budget cuts were needed. Even when belts needed to be tightened, there should be realisation that it was an important space and there were no instant results. The two doctoral students were an example of investment into human capital development and it was a commitment that required resources, especially for young South Africans to stay in science.
Dr Reyers said South Africa had a lot of knowledge on how other countries had developed and these were very important learning spaces for the CSIR.
The Chairperson thanked CSIR and the Committee for their input.
The meeting was adjourned.
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