Huge climate shocks predicted for South African biodiversity

South African landscape
The unique South African landscape

A new South African government report has warned of ‘unmitigated climate change’ causing ‘significant losses in biodiversity’ and ‘changes in South Africa’s ecosystem structure and functioning’.

The damming report goes on to say that climate change is ‘escalating at unprecedented speed’ and is ‘widely considered a multiplier of other pressures on biodiversity, both exacerbating the effects of these pressures and altering the frequency, intensity and timing of events’, affecting ‘most ecological processes with disruptions evident from the genetic level to the landscape level’. Other risk factors to biodiversity loss highlighted in the report include pollution, changes to freshwater flow, habitat loss, mining and invasive alien species.

The five-year National Biodiversity Assessment (NBA) 2018, released in October 2019, was led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and involved 90 scientific institutions and over 470 professional contributors.

Over 1,000 ecosystem types were studied, with almost half seen as threatened and a third not yet protected. Within that, 36 South African plant species are now extinct, 70 are potentially extinct and 14% of plant species and 12% of animal species threatened with extinction. 40% of flora and fauna are not well protected.

Water security in particular is a major issue flagged. Nearly 99% of estuarine and 88% of wetland areas are threatened, yet fewer than 2% are well protected. The Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Ms Barbara Creecy said: “The most concerning of the report’s findings relate to our freshwater ecosystems, rivers, wetlands, estuaries and freshwater fish stocks. These are the most vulnerable of all species groups and the most threatened ecosystems in South Africa.

“In a water-stressed country such as ours, these findings are cause for serious concern. The restoration and protection of these freshwater ecosystems, or what we term eco-infrastructure services, will deliver huge returns on investment with great benefit to the communities that depend on them.”

South Africa is one of the world’s top 10 megadiverse countries and it ranks in the top three globally in terms of endemic plant and marine species. 80% of nearly 500 terrestrial ecosystems are endemic as are half the country’s freshwater fish, amphibian, reptile and butterfly species. The country is also home to 10% of all global coral species. In short, there is nowhere else on earth like it.

As well as providing a secure, protective and sustainable ecosystem, South Africa’s biodiversity provides jobs for almost half a million people, and tourism reliant on biodiversity is valued at more than R30 billion annually (about £1.57 billion). Biodiversity also provides food, clean water, medicine and natural resources as well as supporting the fishery and agricultural industries.

Deputy Director for Policy Advice at the SANBI, Fulufhelo Mukhadi, commented: “For every one job in­volved in conserving biodiversity there are approximately five jobs that depend on the use of biodiversity, which means that investing in biodiversity conservation helps to provide employment.”

Recommendations and tools to address the issues raised and support the country’s National Development Goals are given by the NBA. They include developing a ‘first-time assessment of protection levels for species’, creating a map of South Africa’s ecosystem types, securing strategic water source areas, establishing a country-wide strategy for detecting and tracking climate change impacts, building citizen science platforms for community monitoring programmes and building safeguards for threatened species.

The report’s findings will also feed into South African policies such as the National Biodiversity Framework and the National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy, alongside contributing to the country’s international environment reporting.

One of the lead authors, Stellenbosch University’s Guy Midgley said: “We need on-the-ground observations, which can help us test the rate at which things are happening; to learn through observations to guide our response. It’s not hugely expensive. We can do this right now.

“We shouldn’t see this as a cost. It has all sorts of ancillary benefits: better local health when you shut down mines, less acid-mine drainage and even better local energy security as you devolve power production away from centres of power in a more decentralised way. So you’re democratising energy and reducing costs to people. You’re taking the profit flows away from the fossil-fuel based companies and spreading them among everybody. Because everyone then starts to benefit and that can only be good for South Africa.

“We’re buoyed by the fact that government continues to invest in this issue. It’s clearly both deeply interested in looking at the risks, advancing adaptations, and investing resources in negotiations. The more we describe and quantify the risks, the better our negotiators on the international stage can ask for resources that unlock funding for action and response.”

Southern Africa has already recorded nearly 500 climatic disasters over the past four decades, which has impacted the lives of 140 million people, and temperature increases of between 2-4°C are predicted for southern Africa by 2050, well over the 1.5°C limit that the UN’s IPCC Special Report on Global Warming has set as a target.

Read more at the Daily Maverick


Kate Lewis
Kate Lewis
Kate is a travel writer with a background in conservation and ecotourism. She worked in communications for an international development think tank for 10 years and gained an MA in Tourism, Environment and Development before hopping over to travel journalism.

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