Climate change and its effects on Water; Globe Workshop

Water and Sanitation

03 October 2001
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


This Report is a Contact Natural Resource Information Service
Taking Parliament to People, and People to Parliament


The aim of this report is to summarise the main events at the meeting and identify the key role players. This report is not a verbatim transcript of proceedings.

3 October 2001

Ms B. Sonjica

Documents handed out:
Climate Change and Fresh Water (Globe - Southern Africa)
Key Elements for Developing Countries (Globe - Southern Africa)

The Committee heard a presentation by Globe-SA on climate change and its consequences on water resources in South Africa. The Committee debated the presentation and listened to responses by the Water Institute of South Africa and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. The meeting was mainly informative and allowed Committee Members to debate the issues and challenges presented by the problem of climate change.

The Chairperson welcomed everyone present at the meeting and introduced the items on the agenda for discussion. She introduced Mr Sherman who had come to the meeting to make a presentation.

Climate Change and Freshwater
Mr R. Sherman, Head of the Research and Policy Unit at Globe-SA, started his presentation by explaining that Globe was an international organisation whose membership consisted of Parliamentarians from countries around the world. He said Globe had an office in South Africa and explained that the current focus area of Globe was to work on the Framework on Climate Change and work with the United Nations.

He said that Africa was believed to be the continent most vulnerable to the impact of projected changes in the climate. He quoted a report by the United Nations' International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that presented findings revealing that climate change was happening faster and food security on the African continent was in danger. The IPCC noted the lack of preparation to deal with the adverse effects of climate change on the part of countries on the continent. He said the IPCC also reported that Africa would bear most of the economic costs of climate change.

Mr Sherman noted that water supply was important for the social, economic and environmental well being of the continent. Two-thirds of the rural population and one-quarter of the urban population of the continent lacked access to safe drinking water, and an even higher proportion lacked proper sanitation. Trends in per capita regional water availability in Africa in the past half century showed that water availability had decreased by 75 percent. He highlighted the fact that most of Africa had invested significantly in hydroelectric power facilities that underpinned economic development in the continent. Climate change would make the situation even more adverse, presenting formidable challenges to the continent.

Mr Sherman then outlined some of the challenges Africa might face as a result of pressure on the continent's water resources. He said climate change introduced uncertainty to the water management practices. The historic basis for designing infrastructure was no longer viable because it could not be assumed that future hydrological scenarios would be the same as in the past. He suggested that management systems had to continuously evolve to reduce vulnerability. He warned against unmanaged systems and argued that their vulnerability would affect the ability to buffer the effects of hydrological variability. There was already greater scientific understanding and the conservation and sustainable use of fresh water resources could no longer be achieved without taking climate change into account. Non-climatic changes also had to be considered because they could potentially have an even greater impact. He used the example of the pressure that population growth would put on water resources in Africa.

He suggested that an anticipatory and adaptation approach be adopted in water resource management strategies. He offered the examples of combining use of groundwater and surface supplies as well as increasing the recycling and reusing of wastewater, flood management, drought response planning, demand management and protection of groundwater and estuarine water quality from salt water intrusion. He also made suggestions for institutional and regulatory adaptation strategies. Comprehensive river basin and reservoir management plans that addressed climate change along with future growth challenges would also be beneficial. He suggested, additionally, integrated planning with other sectors and regional co-operation in terms of sharing knowledge and undertaking joint assessment of climate change impacts and responses.

In conclusion, Mr Sherman listed a number of challenges facing water resource management decision makers. He said that it was challenging to study, understand, quantify and obtain consensus on the impact of climate change on freshwater resources. The implementation of effective national counter-measures to address vulnerability of freshwater resources was also a challenge. The International Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol made provisions for funding projects, technologies and methodologies to address freshwater and climate issues. He suggested that these provisions be used to access the funding.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Sherman and asked Mr Reinecke to respond.

Mr D. Reinecke, from the Water Institute of South Africa, said that he was in agreement with most of the content from Mr Sherman's presentation. What he found encouraging was that more organisations were dealing with the issue of water resource management and tackling the concerns surrounding climate change. He suggested that there should be more networking, sharing of information and joint work among organisations and the Department of Water Affairs.

The Chairperson invited members to ask questions and debate on the presentation. She proceeded to ask how serious the world was in dealing with climate change. She wondered whether there was reason to panic and whether South Africa was ready to deal with the impact. She stated that the Committee was mostly concerned with the effects of climate change on poor, homeless and rural people.

Mr Sherman responded that it was difficult to answer the question of the level of seriousness with which the world approached climate change. The European Union looked like it was serious, but the United States Senate appeared to be avoiding the issue. Countries that were most directly affected, such as the island states, treated the issue very seriously because they were already seeing the consequences of climate change. He said there was not yet a need to panic about climate change, and an incremental approach to dealing with the problems was good, but he warned against being too slow with responses. He believed there was no need to create hysteria, as the problems were manageable. While the issue of population growth was critical, it could be dealt with through better water resource management systems.

Mr G. McIntosh (DP) asked if there was a fact paper published on the issue of global warming. He said that there seemed to be several contradictory positions on global warming, and it would be good to know what the facts were. He recounted his experience in other African countries where there was evidence to show that hydroelectric power was unreliable. He said that population increases in the continent had led to human encroachment of waterways and an increased the demand for water.

Mr E. Sigwela (ANC) said South Africa needed to take responsibility for dealing with the drying up of water resources. He asked why the country did not embark on a conservation programme to save water at the source. Perhaps it was time for the thinking to move away from building only big dams to building smaller dams along all the rivers so that communities could benefit directly.

Mr Sherman, responding to the question of managing water on smaller scales, said that this idea could work. He said micro hydro schemes could work as the costs were less and communities could be involved in their development, management and water conservation.

Dr R. Rabinowitz (IFP) asked why Africa did not share the risks and resources in dealing with the diminishing water supply facing the continent. She asked why the continent did not come up with its own African Protocol instead of relying only on the international Kyoto Protocol.

Mr Sherman said the idea was an excellent suggestion, and an Africa process through the African Union would be very useful.

Mr J. Van Wyk (ANC) asked what steps South Africa was taking to deal with the problem. He asked if there was inter-departmental co-operation to tackle climate change.

Mr Sherman responded that, in South Africa, there was an inter-departmental Climate Change Committee that also had NGO participation. The main aim of the inter-departmental Committee was to prepare South Africa for international negotiations around the Kyoto Protocol and establish a national response strategy to climate change. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) was the driving force in the inter-departmental Committee. He also mentioned that DEAT had, within its structure, established a Directorate on Climate Change.

The Chairperson noted that Mr Sherman's presentation had mentioned that Africa would most likely be the first continent affected by the effects of climate change. She asked if there was scientific evidence to support the statement. She asked how that could happen when it was other continents that were engaged in practices that endangered climatic conditions.

Mr Sherman responded that Africa was the first continent to be affected by the effects of climate change because the majority of economies on the continent were agricultural and dependant on rainwater. He said this was a major concern for Africa as food security would be one of the first things to be affected. There would be poverty and a spread of malaria, and the continent would be unable to respond effectively. To reduce the exposure and vulnerability of poor and rural communities to the adverse effects of climate change, he suggested the immediate involvement of these communities in water conservation and usage programmes.

Mr M. Masala (ANC) said that the report was scary for people in rural areas when a country like the United States of America had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. The report said that climate change was human induced through industrialization. He asked what the implications were for a leading industrial country such as the USA pulling out of international commitments on climate change. He also wanted to know how insurance could be used to protect countries from the effects of climate change.

Mr Sherman responded that the negative consequence of the withdrawal of a major contributor to the problem of climate change (the USA) from an international government system (the Kyoto Protocol) was that it had implication for the implementation of resolutions. He said the arguments the USA had presented for its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol had been debunked by many credible academics throughout the world. In response to the question of the role of insurance companies, he said insurance companies were putting pressure on the financial sector to make longer-term investments.

Mr F. Bhengu (ANC) said that, during the time when Professor Asmal was the Minister for Water Affairs, there was a suggestion made for managing forestation in the country. He suggested that efforts be made to guard against the desertification of South Africa. The alien trees that were brought to South Africa by colonialists were said to be a big part of the problem. He asked what governmental and non-governmental organisations were doing to find solutions. He claimed South Africa should lead Africa with the solutions to the challenges of climate change because the continent was in need of direction.

Mr Sherman responded that the removal of alien plant species continued to be part of the solution.

The Chairperson stated that the current early warning system had an urban bias. He asked about early warning measures that were aimed at servicing rural communities and the urban poor. He asked whether there were means to communicate with the most vulnerable people and whether the local private sector was involved in finding solutions.

Mr Sherman said that there was a feeling among some businesses that they needed to respond. The private sector was thinking about its involvement and was involved in setting up projects on the adaptation of water and wastewater treatment.

Mr D. Maimane (ANC) said that, after listening to the presentation, he got the feeling that the Working for Water programme was very relevant. He asked the opinion of the NGO representative present.

Mr Sherman said the Working for Water programme was an important model to look at as an example of government and communities working together.

The Chairperson invited Mr Rowlston from the Department to respond to Mr Sherman's presentation.

Mr B. Rowlston, Director of Strategic Planning from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, said that he agreed in general terms with the presentation but differed in some aspects. He said it was important to make a distinction between water services and water resources. The amount of water that was involved in supplying to households was very small. He did not believe that changes to water resources as a result of climate change would affect the government's programme of supplying water to the people. He believed the Committee Members needed to distinguish between South Africa and other countries on the continent. South Africa was well resourced and developed in water management, and 60 percent of running water was contained in this country. Not withstanding rain variability, rainfall levels were still very good. He said that it was difficult to apportion responsibility of any impact on water resources to climate change. Mr Rowlston agreed on the necessity for vigilance. He said the anticipatory adaptation strategies mentioned in the presentation were exactly what the Department of Water Affairs was already doing.

Responding to Dr Rabinowitz's queries, Mr Rowlston said that integration of efforts was important. If the inter-departmental Committee only worked on preparing for negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, it would not be a priority for his Department. He said that, if the Committee worked on finding solutions to issues brought up by climate change, the Department would be interested. He proposed that the Committee recommend the formation of a national inter-departmental Committee to tackle these issues.

Mr Rowlston stated that the Department was still doing a lot of work on the management of forests. Controls on commercial forestation had been refined, and all forestation projects were tightly controlled. The Department was willing to pay for some aspects of the Working for Water programme as they continued to be relevant. He reported that there was a Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Country Study Report that had not yet been released by Cabinet. An aspect of the study focused on water. He said that the report needed to come out so that the Department of Water Affairs and civil society could be informed of its findings.

Dr Rabinowitz asked if Mr Rowlston was challenging the view that there might be no surface water in Africa by the year 2050. She also asked why the country study report had not been released.

Mr Rowlston responded by presenting statistics about the cubic litre capacity of some of southern Africa's major rivers. He mentioned that the Orange River had 11 000 million cubic litres of water flowing in it annually. The Zambezi River had ten times more capacity, and the Congo River a hundred times more capacity, than the Orange River. It was true that there would be water shortages in the future, but there would still be enough water to meet consumption needs. He said that the issue was to implement policies that were resource cost-effective. On the question regarding the country study report, he reported that the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism had commissioned it, but it was up to Cabinet to release it to the public.

Dr S. Mogoba (PAC) asked if the country had enough dams to ensure that water was not lost and if there were solutions being for ordinary people such as rain holding tanks. He asked if South Africa could make use of water resources from countries on the continent with an abundance of water. He also asked about eucalyptus trees and whether they were really an environmental problem because he heard that they had some uses.

Mr Rowlston responded that there was a need to do more to make sure that as much water as was available in South Africa was harvested. He said the idea of providing water holding tanks to communities was a good suggestion. On the question of sharing the water of other countries on the continent, Mr Rowlston said that South Africa was already sharing water resources with other southern Africa countries such as Lesotho. It had taken South Africa eighteen years to negotiate a sharing agreement with Lesotho, and he said it would take longer to negotiate with other countries further up the continent. He believed that the best solution was to live within the country's means.

Mr D. Maimane (ANC) said he needed clarity on the scientific facts around events such as the flooding in Mozambique and whether they were a natural occurrence or were caused by changes in the climate.

Mr Rowlston responded that the flooding in Mozambique could be considered a normal occurrence, and records of flooding history in Mozambique could be made available to the Committee.

The Chairperson asked if the Department had tried to access international funding to improve the water management infrastructure that Mr Sherman had mentioned in his presentation.

In her concluding remarks the Chairperson said that climate change was a reality that South Africa had to deal with. The role of the private sector was unclear and this was worrying. She suggested that the Department make the debate on climate change public so that civil society, including people in rural areas and squatter camps, could hear about it and participate. She also said that the relevant reports needed to be made available to the Committee. Additionally, the early warning systems needed to be improved and an integrated response to the problem was necessary. She stated that a Cabinet memorandum would be necessary to ensure that all the relevant Departments worked together on the issue. She suggested that the Department be involved in the Southern Africa Development Community Protocol and that the Department participate in debates to inform and develop policy on the issue. She then announced that the meeting was adjourned.

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