South Africans have been urged to protect themselves against the effects of climate change. This comes in the wake of the high temperatures that the country has been experiencing.

Most parts of the country have been experiencing heatwaves, as a result of changes in temperatures. Although there will be some relief in days to come, as evidenced by the rainfall that has been forecast, climate change experts from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have given warnings of increased temperatures and extreme heat events throughout the summer season.

Briefing the media in Pretoria on Thursday, 31 October 2019, experts urged citizens to take extra precautionary steps during this hot season. 

“Although we are expecting some rainfall in the next few days in the eastern and northern parts of the country, climate change is here. We need to come up with alternative ways of adapting to climate change. Farmers and the entire society must prepare for lifestyle modifications that climate change brings forth,” said CSIR meteorologist Dr Johan Malherbe.

Malherbe said the highest temperature increases occurred in the northern parts of the country, with temperatures going beyond 40 °C.

“This is typically the time of year during which we see these types of heatwaves. Our future climate projections also indicate that these increases in temperature will continue, and can have a huge impact on the occurrence of fires, for example. Furthermore, South Africa does not sit with the problem of too much rain; it is generally just enough or too little. Therefore, if temperatures go up, but rainfall does not occur, the heat conditions will only become worse,” he said.

CSIR environmental health scientist Juanette John looks at some of the effects that this climate phenomenon could have on human health. The potential health impacts may result from direct exposure to an increase in temperatures and extreme weather events or from indirect exposure, such as changes in air quality and through impacts on agriculture.

John emphasises that the effect of climate change is felt differently in different areas and by different individuals, as it is not only based on their exposure, but also on a variety of other factors. “The impact and effect of climate change is dependent on where people live, the type of work they do and their age, among other factor. Therefore, the interventions that need to take place have to be based on these considerations; sometimes interventions can actually be very simple. They may range from drinking enough water to staying in well-shaded areas when it is very hot,” said John.

“Climate change is expected to a have huge impact on health, but not enough is known about the effects of the impact that it has already had and how it may affect future impact. Many current health issues are climate-sensitive and thus may be impacted by climate change, adding an additional stressor to the health field. Projections of the number of hot days for South Africa into the future show that they will increase. Moving forward, we need to quantify potential risk and, for that, we need local relationships of temperature and mortality,” added John.

The experts also urged government and other key stakeholders to focus on outcomes that will improve climate resilience and to think about actionable adaptation options to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. They said that the solution to climate change is not simple and requires a collective effort across sectors and disciplines. 

For more information:  Potential risk and  vulnerabilities to Health  under climate change