Durban - Since 1980, the 491 recorded climate disasters that have struck southern Africa have exacted a heavy toll: causing $10 billion in damage, 110 978 deaths and leaving 2.47 million people homeless.
A further 140 million people have been affected by these disasters that unfolded across the region between 1980 and 2015.
These are among the revelations contained in a new Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) publication, which warns that the region’s exposure to weather-related events, particularly floods, droughts, wildfires and storm surges, is likely to increase into the 21st century.
The CSIR’s “Climate Risk and Vulnerability: A Handbook for Southern Africa”, which was unveiled last week, reveals how in southern Africa climate events account for the largest percentage – 67% – of natural disaster deaths.
The authors, CSIR researchers Claire Davis-Reddy and Katharine Vincent, note how in South Africa extreme weather-related events have cost the insurance industry alone more than R1 billion in claims in the 2013/2014 financial year.
But while South Africa has the highest number of recorded climatological events and the highest economic cost of damages, “communities in Mozambique, Madagascar and Malawi are particularly vulnerable to extreme climate events”.
Since the first edition of the handbook in 2011, “significant progress has been made in projecting and understanding climate change for the region, providing an increasingly robust basis for strategy and policy”.
Southern Africa is “susceptible to a number of extreme weather events, particularly floods, droughts, wildfires, and large storms”.
“The impacts range from primary (or direct) effects such as damage to infrastructure and death, to secondary effects such as increasing health burden and the loss of livelihoods.
“An analysis of the socio-economic impacts from recent extreme climate events reveals significant vulnerability and exposure of the region that translates into climate-related disasters.”
Changes in many extreme events have been observed since 1950.
“Some changes are evident with clear long-term trends (for example, more frequent hot days) while others are more difficult to detect (tropical cyclones and thunderstorms).”
The authors note how projected increases in extreme temperatures may increase the risk of wildfires, while coastal storm surges are expected to increase from the rise in sea levels.
“Higher sea levels will mean that smaller storms are likely to have an increased impact on the coastline… Projections suggest the annual frequency of very hot days (exceeding 35°C) will increase and that the frequency of extreme rainfall events (20mm or more of rain falling within 24 hours) will increase over the eastern parts of southern Africa.”
Southern Africa has been warming significantly over the past century.
“For the period 1961 to 2014 temperatures over the region have increased at a rate of 0.4°C per decade.
“Temperatures are projected to continue to increase during the 21st century, with the rate of increase reflecting the concentrations of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Average annual temperatures are likely to increase by 1°C to 3°C by 2050, with higher increases expected during summer months. Warming is likely to be greatest towards the interior of the region, and lower in coastal areas.”
Trends in sea surface temperatures “demonstrate warming at all latitudes along the entire southern African coastline. Changes in sea surface temperatures have important implications for the up-welling strength in the Benguela Current system as well as the Agulhas Current, both of which are important drivers of regional climate.”
The handbook notes how projected changes in rainfall vary but “there is agreement between models that central southern Africa (northern Botswana, Namibia, the south-western Cape of South Africa, southern Zambia and Zimbabwe are likely to be drier, with Tanzania and parts of northern Mozambique projected to be wetter in the future”.
The handbook explains how vulnerability to climate change is not only caused by the level of exposure, but also by social, economic and other environmental factors that interact with the changing climate.
While the risks posed by climate change will likely result in a range of negative impacts across the region, many of which are cross-cutting through key sectors, “with appropriate responses, climate change need not always be detrimental”.
The transboundary nature of climate change necessitates regional co-operation and action.
“There is a large body of evidence that suggests investment in disaster prevention is more cost-effective than spending on relief.”
The Independent on Saturday