Nov 20

Our natural Environment – Are We Doomed Or Determined To Win?

An Article By Ian Kilbride.

The challenges facing our natural world are broad and deep, but what is driving this threat and what can be done?

The first and most obvious driver is the loss of biodiversity. Over the past fifty years, human actions have altered three quarters of the Earth’s land-based environment and two thirds of our marine environment. The 300% growth in the demand for and production of crops over the past fifty years has significantly reduced the land available to wildlife. This loss of grassland is on par with the loss of tropical rainforest yet receives very little attention. This also has a negative impact on carbon emissions which are released when grassland is ploughed up.

Of course, this problem links directly to population growth and what we consume as a food source. There is growing awareness of the environmental impact of cattle raising (methane production), deforestation and the fact that the production of this protein source is far more resource intensive than other foods. Moreover, food waste has serious environmental impacts that need to be addressed for the sake of sustainability and social equity.

The second related problem is the challenge of the intensive extraction of our natural resources, the most threatened of which is ground water. Cape Town’s nearly ‘day zero’ in 2018 was the starkest reminder that water resources are scarce and are subject to variability of availability against increasing demand. Climate change is playing havoc with weather patterns in South Africa and while Cape Town dams are at their highest levels in many years, the onset soon of the El Nino climate effect is set to threaten water security in the Mother City in the coming 24 months. But beyond the threat of changing weather patterns, massive urbanisation is placing a huge strain on water availability, storage and infrastructure. Poor infrastructure maintenance compounds this problem, allowing for up to 30% of potable water to be lost in some urban areas. While access to water may be regarded as a basic human and constitutional right, if we do not manage this resource far more carefully, it will become an expensive commodity and its scarcity and cost becoming a source of conflict within and between communities.

In commercial terms for example, water scarcity presents an existential threat to the Cape’s winelands, the loss of which would be catastrophic for the country, the economy (both from an export and tourism perspective) and devastating to local communities dependent on this supply chain for their existence. More specifically, tourists will not travel to a destination, particularly a long haul one, that cannot provide the assurance of basic amenities such as water and I am not convinced the city has done anywhere near enough to plan for and avoid another day zero. For example, what is the status of the much-vaunted electricity-intensive desalination plants in Cape Town and where exactly is the city in preparing to pump the vast aquafer that lies under the peninsular? But is this really the route we want to go and what will be the long-term consequences of pumping aquafer water? Personally, I don’t know, but equally, I don’t recall the city making this clear to the citizenry either?

Then of course there is that epoch-defining threat of climate change. The sight of a tornado rolling over the landscape of Ermelo last week, last year’s flooding from which KZN has yet to recover and the devastating historic drought that destroyed Karoo farming are just three signals that climate change has arrived in South Africa. I see no compelling evidence that government at national, provincial or local level is prepared to deal with either its mitigation or adaptation. We are so fixated on the energy crisis (quite understandably), that we seem blind to the connected nature of solving this through an appropriate mix of traditional and renewable and environmentally sustainable sources. In addition to the catastrophic havoc climate change will wreak on the economy and livelihoods, if not addressed urgently, it will bring about forced population, regional and urbanisation patterns for which, again, we are ill-prepared. Again, I see no clear evidence that national government, the provinces or metros are anywhere near ready for what are likely to be seismic changes in our population spatial patterns and demand on our creaking infrastructure.

Greater forced migration will also exacerbate South Africa’s high pollution levels, airborne, land-based and waterborne. Our major cities, conurbations and peri-urban areas are already heavily polluted, and we are urgently in need of policies, programmes and concerted action to clean up our cities before they decline and decay any further.

All of this speaks to the twin challenges of development and sustainability facing our country. They should not and must not be viewed as separate or worse still, contradictory objectives, particularly by government and the corrupt energy dinosaurs. Rather, what is required is an integrated economic development and environmental sustainability plan on a grand scale with very specific short, medium and long-term objectives, with measurable deliverables. Cape Town would be a good place to start, particularly as it is a relatively well-run city, but one that faces its own challenges of rapid uncontrolled urbanisation and environmental degradation.

But before the City even thinks about this, we need a stakeholder dialogue between local government, business and civil society to actually recognise the threat and agree on priorities and programmes. We are all in this together and we all need to do our bit to fix it!