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Johannesburg - The failure to understand accurately the synergy between water, energy and food will result in growing numbers of South Africans - possibly many millions - falling prey to hunger, water-borne diseases, energy shortages and increased poverty.

This is the warning contained in the draft National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for South Africa, which spells out the country's plans for “building climate resilience”.

The challenges posed by resource constraints “point to a coming crisis in the provision of clean water, electricity and nutritious food, which are at the heart of national security and welfare”, says the strategy document.

Released by the Department of Environmental Affairs for public comment late last year, the strategy cites how South Africa's National Development Plan (NDP) seeks to eliminate poverty, deliver environmental protection and promote economic development by 2030.

“In a country fraught with unemployment and notorious for having one of the world's highest wealth gaps between rich and poor, there is an urgent need to grow the economy in such a way that jobs are created for a largely unskilled workforce and that there is a structured redistribution and equity in access to and ownership of resources.”

But the NDP’s vision for the future, which includes access to affordable food and safe, affordable and reliable water and energy services, “cannot be based on an economic model that assumes infinite availability of these and other resources”, says the draft document.

The NDP, too, “does not test the sensitivity of achieving its goals in light of climate change and variability".

“The reality is there is limited water and fertile land resources and there has been steady degradation of the environment and associated ecosystem resilience.

“Population growth, shifting diets and urbanisation are putting increasing pressure on food, water and energy supply.

"At the same time many natural resources are becoming harder to access, pushing exploration into less accessible zones associated with greater technical, social and environmental challenges and increasing cost,” says the draft document.

Couple this with the likely impacts of climate change, such as rainfall variability and extreme weather events, “and the need for integrated planning to think in terms of the food-energy-water nexus becomes urgent”.

But the document details how, until now, there has been limited recognition of the interdependence of these three resources - water, energy and food - from a policy and sectoral perspective.

“Rather these are all dealt with in silos. It's now evident that failure to understand accurately the synergies and trade-offs between these three resources will result in growing numbers - many millions - of South Africans at risk of hunger, water-borne diseases, energy shortages and increased poverty.

"Ultimately, the challenges posed by resource constraints point to a coming crisis in the provision of clean water, electricity and nutritious food, which are at the heart of national security and welfare.

"It's important we respond correctly to ward off this crisis.”

Fresh water is predicted to become the determining constraint on development.

“However, the challenge is not only an issue of water availability. It's perhaps first and foremost an issue of declining water quality.

“The quality of fresh water resources has been on a steady decline owing to increased pollution, (with) 40% of fresh water systems now in a critical condition."

South Africa is a water-scarce country with 98% of available water allocated.

“Given the level of water scarcity in the country, water-intensive energy production and the increase in agricultural production in response to a growing demand and to support job creation, will challenge the existing balance.

“Water could be the critical limiting local resource for the sustained supply of both energy and food.”

The spectre of climate variability and changes in rainfall patterns add to the uncertainty, particularly for those farmers who lack the resilience to survive even short-term crisis, says the draft document.

The National Adaptation Strategy helps to “gauge the degree to which development initiatives at different levels of government and business integrate and reflect critical change adaptation".

This would help guide "stronger coherence and co-ordination on climate change adaptation activities between different institutions and levels of government, particularly with regards to planning, implementation and reporting".

There is ample evidence of the national and local changes in the temperature and rainfall climatology of South Africa over at least the past 50 years.

“Studies of historical temperature trends indicate that South Africa has been warming significantly from 1931 to 2015."

The strongest warming trends have been observed in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, north-east Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

There is evidence that extreme weather events in South Africa are increasing, with heat-wave conditions found to be more likely, dry-spell durations lengthening slightly and rainfall intensity increasing.

“These have a bearing on economic and social aspects on our development.”

* Public comment on the draft document closes on January 31.

Saturday Star