Building buffers to climate change
Dr Jeanne Nel wa not going to talk about the “doom and gloom” environmental messages of the consequences of climate change, or the need to become “greenies”. These messages tend to leave South Africans feeling hopeless, she believes.
So instead Nel, a conservation biologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told her audience about how natural ecosystems in South Africa could be used to protect the country from some of the worst impacts of climate change.
In her talk ahead of the upcoming global climate change talks in Durban, entitled: “Adapting to climate change the natural way” in Pretoria on Thursday, Nel explained climate change would bring with it gradually “warmer temperatures everywhere, more so in the interior”.
It would also mean wetter conditions on the east coast, drier conditions in the far west, increased seasonal variability and increased frequency of extreme events.
Until now, said Nel, the main focus on dealing with climate change has been on strategies to mitigate it by tackling the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, or through adaptation strategies that strive to reduce the vulnerability of “people and places” to its impacts.
But more and more, said Nel, an emerging focus is on ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change “by improving the resilience of landscapes”.
This means using biodiversity and ecosystem services to cope with climate change and includes controlling invasive alien species, using wetlands to regulate floods, and revegetation for carbon storage.
“Healthy ecosystems provide ecosystem services that help us to adapt to climate change, which provide cost effective natural buffers to climate change. These networks of healthy ecosystems can be viewed as our ecological infrastructure,” she explained.
South Africa has a proven track record in adapting rapidly to change and “where better to explore concepts that harness human and natural capital”, she said.
“It’s about designing landscapes in ways that support grazing and mining but also provide natural buffers like riparian vegetation.”
Healthy wetlands act as buffers to climate change and although these are the most degraded ecosystems in South Africa “you can still restore some functioning and can build ecological infrastructure”.
“When you rehabilitate a wetland in its headwaters, you help slow the flow of water and you don’t get water rushing into towns and cities and flooding them. It also creates jobs and promotes biodiversity conservation. Those are the sorts of things we need to do.”
Other examples of ecosystem-based adaptation include a pilot project in the Baviaanskloof in the Eastern Cape where thicket is being used as a carbon sink and to restore degraded land. This, she said, is creating jobs, improving water quality and developing the rural economy.
Projects like Working for Water and Working for Wetlands are also examples of natural buffers to climate change because they clear alien vegetation and restore wetlands. The former has created 30 000 jobs a year since it started in 1995.
Like the use of mangroves in other countries, coastal foredunes in South Africa cut coastal erosion and absorb the energy and size of waves.
South Africa, said Nel, has “mostly mosaic landscapes” that provide opportunities to design resilient, natural ecosystems, working landscapes and other open spaces.
“It’s not new stuff, it’s stuff we’ve already been doing but it’s to make the point that it’s not for the warm fuzzy feeling of species, but about reducing peoples’ vulnerability to climate change by building resilient landscapes,” she said. - Saturday Star