By Alan Maryon-Davis
The call went out to all churches in KwaZulu-Natal to pray for rain. The drought had ravaged Zululand for months following a disappointingly dry rainy season. For the seventh year in a row the parched land had received less than 75% of its previous average rainfall. The underground aquifers were empty. Natural springs and boreholes, the sole source for most of the rural communities had dried up. The once mighty uMfolozi river was a trickle. Severe water restrictions were in place. Farmers’ livelihoods were at stake. The situation was critical.
I had been invited to visit South Africa by the College of Public Health Medicine (ironically to talk to a number of groups about climate change and receive an honorary fellowship) and I could see the effects of the drought with my own eyes. The sugarcane fields were in a sorry state, other produce was shrivelled and even the drought-resistant eucalyptus trees, a cash crop, were showing signs of stress. The bush veldt of Zululand is well used to dry summers – but this was early spring – the seventh dry early spring – a worrying pattern. Commentators talked of climate change in action – allied to trends already seen further up the east coast of Africa.
And yet, despite the emerging threat to its own economy and the health and wellbeing of its people, the ‘Rainbow State,’ like many other countries that straddle the developed and developing worlds, is far from wholeheartedly embracing the green agenda. It is caught between, on the one hand, the need to play its part as a major economy in reducing carbon emissions to help combat global warming, and on the other, the impetus to increase its GDP and offer a comfortable lifestyle to its burgeoning, upwardly mobile, urbanised middle classes.
South Africa’s per capita carbon footprint is about the same as the European average. Its energy comes overwhelmingly from its extensive coal resources and, despite recently approving a more balanced energy-generating policy, there’s little sign of any imminent shift towards renewables or nuclear. The potential for solar energy, especially in more remote rural areas, is high – but start-up costs are considered too prohibitive to roll-out on a large scale. Other priorities, such as education, healthcare and housing, come first.
In many ways, South Africa’s dilemma over carbon emissions is typical of its fellow BRICS economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and highlights the challenges that will be faced by negotiators at the next round of climate change talks in Mexico in December. How can the world move towards some sort of contraction and convergence formula that is fair and practicable and politically acceptable to countries at all stages of development? And at the same time ensure that those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are helped to become more resilient.
Meanwhile, back in Zululand – something good has happened. The skies have darkened, the clouds have opened and rain has filled the water tanks, runnels and ditches. Could this be the power of prayer – or merely the serendipities of a troubled atmosphere?
Either way, the sugarcane farmers and smallholders are smiling again.