Why do research on knowledge about climate change and water in South Africa?

Climate change, due to a variety of cosmological and geographical processes, is a natural occurrence on earth, but it is widely recognised that an increase in global temperature in the last 100 years (popularly known as global warming) is related to human activities (IPCC 2007). Such anthropogenic climate change will have (and already have) significant impacts – and catastrophic consequences – on societies, economies, development and people’s livelihoods (see World Bank 2009). Crate and Nuttall (2009:11) therefore describe climate change as “a threat multiplier. It magnifies and exacerbates existing social, economic, political, and environmental trends, problems, issues, tensions, and challenges.”

One of the areas where scientific observational records and climate projections show abundant evidence of impact and strong vulnerabilities in future, with wide-ranging consequences for human societies and ecosystems, is freshwater resources (Bates et al 2008:3). The South African Country Studies Programme and the National Climate Change Response White Paper (RSA 2011) have identified the water sector as one of the most vulnerable sectors in South Africa to climate change impacts (Madzwamuse 2010:vi). Already in the 1990s South Africa was identified as one of the countries that will experience considerable water scarcity by 2025 (UNEP 1999), with about half of river-systems endangered (Enow 2012:5), leaving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007) to project that by 2050 the annual average water availability in southern Africa will have decreased by 10-30%. But the effects of climate change are not just in increased water scarcity, but also in water quality changes. In a country which is predominantly semi-arid, with high rainfall variability, high evaporation, and frequent droughts and floods, and where 98% of the water resources have already been allocated (Turton 2008), climate change impacts on hydrological resources are inevitable, and adaptation urgent.

However, according to an IPCC technical report (Bates et al 2008:4), several gaps exist in our knowledge on the relations between climate change and water; they identify these as lack of observational data (on especially water quality, groundwater and aquatic ecosystems) at relevant scales to improve modelling of climate changes and its socio-economic dimensions.

The key public and academic debates on climate change in past decades have been about whether climate change is human induced, its (potential) impacts on environments and societies, and policy solutions to mitigate and adapt to it. Scientists agree on the human causes of current global warming and climate change, and make use of various modelling exercises to predict its future potential impacts. Such models and predictions from natural scientists are the major source of policy decisions worldwide on climate change (Connor 2011:247). But West and Vásquez-León (2003:233) indicate that as the global debate on climate change became more public and political, the gap between local perspectives of various stakeholders and the global perspectives of scientists became glaring. The mostly
global scale positivist computer-generated quantitative top-down ‘science knowledge’ from largely the wealthy (North, rich, formally ‘educated’) on which most policy decisions are based, seems to give little attention to local scale contextual qualitative analyses (Magistro & Roncoli 2001:91), and to ‘local knowledges’ from largely the poor (South, formally ‘uneducated’).


(Source: http://thespiritscience.net/spirit/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Knowledge1.jpg)

However, it is especially at local level that social and cultural aspects mediate relations between humans and nature, and where those relations manifest in different knowledges, and vice versa, leading to various adaptations. Anthropologists have a long tradition of studying human adaptations, and should contribute to our understandings and policies on climate change adaptation. Due to one of the fieldwork methods of anthropologists, namely ethnography, they are able to unpack the knowledges and understandings of local peoples with regards to climate change in great depth. Crate (2008:569, 574) argues that once local perceptions are clear, it can be used to inform and fill gaps in scientific knowledge, to reframe advocacy, policy and practice. Anthropologists have also been raising the need to incorporate local environmental knowledge (LEK) into climate change understandings, and the 2007 fourth assessment report of the IPCC did acknowledged LEK as “an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change”. So far though, most scientific knowledge and LEK on climate change remains largely un-integrated, due to, among others, very different epistemologies.

This research project is about exploring the compatibility of (or domains of articulation between) various knowledges on the relations between climate change and water in a specific area of South Africa. The project is underpinned by a broader interest in what is seen as good evidence under what circumstances by whom and for what.

List of references

Bates B, Kundzewicz ZW, Wu S, Palutikof J (eds) 2008 Climate change and water. Technical paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Secretariat, Geneva

Connor HL 2011 Anthropogenic climate change and cultural crisis: An anthropological perspective. Journal of Australian political economy 66: 247-267

Crate SA 2008 Gone the bull of winter? Grappling with the cultural implications of and Anthropology’s role(s) in global climate change. Current Anthropology 49(4): 569-595

Crate S & Nuttall M (eds) 2009 Anthropology and climate change: From encounters to action. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press

Enow A 2012 Opportunities for strengthening interdisciplinary research on water in South Africa. Available at http://web.up.ac.za/sitefiles/file/48/5139/22_Mar_2012_Message_NRF.pdf

IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) 2007. Summary for Policy-makers: Climate Change 2007: Climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Working Group II Contribution to the International Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report. Geneva, IPCC

Madzwamuse M 2010 Climate change vulnerability and adaptation preparedness in South Africa. Cape Town: Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. Available at http://www.za.boell.org/downloads/HBF_web_SA_28_2.pdf


Magistro J & Roncoli C 2001 Anthropological perspectives and policy implications of climate change research. Climate Research 19: 91-96

RSA (Republic of South Africa) 2011 National climate change response white paper. Pretoria: Available at http://d2zmx6mlqh7g3a.cloudfront.net/cdn/farfuture/mtime:1318494015/files/docs/111012nccr-whitepaper.pdf

Turton A 2008 Three strategic water challenges that decision-makers need to know about and how the CSIR should respond. Keynote address at the CSIR Conference Science Real and Relevant, 18 November 2008, Pretoria

West CT & Vásquez-León M 2003 Testing farmers’ perceptions of climate variability: A case study from the Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona. In Strauss S & Orlove BS (eds) Weather, climate, culture. Oxford: Berg: 233-250

World Bank 2009 World development report 2010: Development and climate change. Washington DC: World Bank