COVID-19 forces the Southern Cape to shift gear – the rebuild will offer new opportunities to increase climate-change readiness

16 July 2020

Cobus Meiring, chair of the Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) Secretariat, interviewed the Minister of Local Government, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning in the Western Cape, Mr Anton Bredell, on the correlation between some of the effects of COVID-19 and Climate Change and how his Department intends to respond in a fast-changing environment. The interview is part of a series of climate change related interviews and debates facilitated by the Forum.

According to Meiring, the advent of COVID-19, in many respects, rapidly brought forward weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the regional environmental dispensation. He asked Minister Bredell to share his perspective on the current situation in the Western Cape.

Mr Anton Bredell.

Says Minister Bredell: “Nothing should distract us from the need to respond to the current humanitarian crisis. We must ensure that the people of the Western Cape are safe and cared for. In this respect, we do, however, acknowledge the impacts of climate change on increasing risks and vulnerabilities, and on our ability to mobilise financial resources. This understanding informs our disaster risk management and economic development planning, with the intention to both respond to immediate needs, and ensure that the longer-term recovery is environmentally responsible, resilient and socially equitable.”

“The biggest opportunity lies in front of us – to leverage the post-COVID-19 rebuild into one that is low carbon, resilient, equitable and just. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lists a timeframe until 2030 to sort out the global climate change problem. That means we have nine years left after this crisis to achieve meaningful climate change mitigation. We need to flatten the CO2 emissions curve in the same drastic manner that we are doing the pandemic curve.”

According to Minister Bredell, the Provincial Strategic Plan recognises the effect that climate change will have on our ability to achieve social welfare targets and economic growth. Therefore must ensure that our implementation efforts are aligned with the vision of a resilient society and economy.

“If anything, the COVID-19 disruption forces us to shift gear and take some extraordinary steps to accelerate the benefits to be reaped from our planned economic trajectory.”

Effective implementation of the climate change response

According to Minister Bredell, the effective implementation of the climate response will require collaborative efforts. As with the COVID-19 pandemic response, a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach is to be employed to ensure systemic consideration of climate risks across stakeholder groups in the Western Cape.

“The COVID-19 response is requiring a total reboot of our society, economy and governance. A post-2020 or Post-COVID-19 world is one we have yet to re-imagine and is all of ours to rewrite.

“Our intention as DEA&DP is to continue our own involvement and response to the current evolving situation and to support the whole of government response. We want to ensure that Western Cape Government rebuilds with a new drive to embed the values required to save the younger generation (climate change risk) of our society as we are investing right now in saving the older generation (COVID-19 risk).”

He says the Department will continue supporting research on anticipated climate change impacts under the various future climate scenarios.

“Of importance is to ensure that multi-hazard risks are considered in the scenario planning so that we are able to determine how impacts of climate change such as droughts, increase in temperature, sea-level rise and sea storm surges, among others, will cascade to affect different aspects of the citizens’ lives i.e. livelihoods, economy, health, well-being, responsiveness etc.”

Furthermore, the Department is developing the Western Cape Ecological Infrastructure Investment Framework (EIIF) as a flagship project to address the risk of water insecurity in the province. Ecological infrastructure refers to naturally occurring systems that deliver valuable services to people and examples include dune systems, wetlands and catchments (strategic water source areas). The EIIF seeks to coordinate investments into, and management efforts within the province’s key water source areas such as Keurbooms, Karatara or the Breede River catchment. It will foster collaboration among all relevant sectors active in waterscapes in the province. Engagement on the framework is anticipated to unlock innovation and promote the sharing of ideas around accelerating action towards improving the provincial water security profile in the uncertain climate change context.

Managing invasive alien plants

According to Minister Bredell, one of the challenges in the strategic water source areas and catchments is the extensive growth of invasive alien plants (IAP). These IAPs increase fuel loads and pose a severe wildfire hazard. They are also intensive water users thus placing severe pressure on limited freshwater resources.

In 2018, a study commissioned by the Department estimated that the potential value of water lost because of alien invasive vegetation on the Keurbooms and Karatara catchment to range into the hundreds of millions of Rands per year. This volume of water lost was projected to increase if efforts to reduce the alien invasive plants were not prioritised. The Department, through the EIIF, is engaging landowners, Bitou, Knysna and George Local Municipalities towards setting up a sustainable mechanism to fund clearing of alien vegetation and thus ensuring increased surface runoff flowing to the rivers on these two catchments.

Understanding climate change threats

“We are working towards expanding our understanding of how climate change pressures, threats from human activities and the ability to adapt interact, in order to identify areas that are most important to conserve from a species and ecosystem persistence perspective. On the one hand, we have locations that are most important for long-term ecosystem resilience as identified by the Biodiversity Spatial Plan (BSP), and on the other, threats to this network. It is therefore important to address the specific threats whilst maintaining the integrity of the rest of the ecosystem network,” says Minister Bredell.

Several legislative, decision support policies and strategic planning instruments have been developed by the Department over the past strategic planning period (2015/2020) to enhance the province’s environmental climate change resilience and to pre-empt future sustainability needs.

The Department also continues to motivate for the utilisation of climate change projections in water supply management by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), and in promoting improved efficiencies and resilience by local governments in their water demand management efforts.

“While the current focus is on fighting COVID-19, we will not be going back to business as usual. The Department, through the Climate Change Directorate, is in the process of revising and updating the Western Cape Climate Change Response Strategy (WCCCRS). This is being done in a consultative way, drawing insights from some of the key sectors such as health, agriculture and transport. It will also elicit input from scientists, academia, the private sector and civil society. Discussions are already underway with the sectors and across stakeholder groups on the need to consider climate change impacts on day-to-day operations; and how they could systemically embed sustainability and resilience into performance plans. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, issues relating to health risk will probably occupy centre stage in all these plans.”

Minister Bredell also pointed out the importance of raising awareness about climate change.

“Just like with COVID-19, impacts of climate change will be felt at a social scale, hence the importance of raising awareness of topical issues to the citizens so that they can engage from a position of knowledge. There are various Environmental Education initiatives through the Directorate of Sustainability focusing on climate change. Through these engagements, the Department seeks to engage citizens, including the youth, on how they can reduce their carbon footprint while also adapting to the impacts of climate change. While most of the lessons have taken place in classrooms or through face-to-face dialogue with community members, the Department will in future explore ways to tap into the use of smart technology and use of webinars and social media platforms as a means of disseminating information and communicating with citizens.”

Minister Bredell concludes: “Empathy and ubuntu – responding better together…”

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The Garden Route Environmental Forum (GREF) is a public platform for environmental management entities in the Southern Cape, and a regional think tank on climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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Written by Marti Kirstein