Mrs Sabine Stuart-Hill (standing left) and Professor
Roland Schulze (standing right), running a
stakeholder workshop with champions in the Mgeni

Communities with low socio-economic status, based on income, education and housing type are highly likely to be more vulnerable to climate change than more well-off and educated communities as they do not have the capacity or resources to protect themselves or their properties from possible impacts. However, the simplified assumption of “poor” or “rural” equals “most vulnerable” can be misleading, as well as assuming that severe climate change impacts lead to high levels of vulnerability.

This was among the findings Mrs Sabine Stuart-Hill, an Environmental Hydrologist at UKZN’s Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) at the School for Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, presented at the 16th National Hydrology Symposium in Pretoria following her research into risks faced by climate change “hotspots”. This research was part of a WRC funded project.

Stuart-Hill said the aim of the WRC research project was a first attempt at better understanding water links to societal vulnerability. The team firstly identifies which communities are most sensitive to climate change due to their socioeconomic status; secondly investigates how able those communities were to respond to the risks imposed on them, and thirdly, defines the risks these communities were most exposed to.

 ‘People who are directly dependent on resources around them are more likely to be affected by any changes in the availability and distribution of those resources,’ said Stuart-Hill. ‘Those living next to a river, for example, are at greater risk to increased runoff and flooding.’

The research was carried out in two catchments – the Mgeni catchment in KwaZulu-Natal where an increase in rainfall is projected, and the Berg catchment in the Western Cape, where decreases in rainfall are projected.

The Mgeni catchment includes two major cities, Pietermaritzburg and Durban, while the Berg catchment includes Cape Town. Both catchments comprise a mixture of land uses, including urban settlement, rural areas, subsistence and commercial farming as well as various open spaces to degraded areas. Both catchments have high density settlements characterising urban settlement patterns, implying that a large number of people, living in a relatively small area, are vulnerable to climate change impacts. At the same time two significant differences exist: The Mgeni catchment is part of the summer rainfall region, while the Cape has winter rainfall. The economy in the Cape is agriculturally based while the Mgeni has a strong industrial influence.

‘Urban migration may have a negative effect on people’s ability to adapt to climate change as they experience disruptions in social structure and lose traditional practices,’ explained Stuart-Hill. ‘This presents a challenge to city managers and decision-makers to help protect a large number of highly vulnerable people.’

The research further showed that often communities least able to adapt were also those most sensitive and exposed to climate change, partly also due to patterns of urban migration, legacies of past legislation and the urban structure of society. Families in traditional or informal households were at greater risk due to flooding as the building materials and structures lack the structural integrity to withstand the pressures of flood water.

This was of particular concern in the Mgeni catchment where, for example large changes in three-day flood events are projected, especially in the interior around Pietermaritzburg, where a large number of informal houses were still found. Communities in the Mgeni catchment were found to be more reliant on open sources of water than communities in the Berg catchment.

‘The need to reduce the number of people relying on open water sources is imperative in both catchments as these people are using unsafe water sources and are at risk to changes in water quality and quantity,’ said Stuart-Hill.

‘Overall, the results showed far higher levels of vulnerability in the Mgeni than the Berg catchment although the latter has been declared as South Africa’s climate change hotspot.

‘However, each catchment presents a different set of challenges to municipal managers and different adaptation plans will be required. By identifying which communities or parts of society are vulnerable to climate change, researchers can provide planners with a starting point on where to focus specific adaptation options and offer insight into which adaptation strategies are most viable for each location,’ said Stuart-Hill. The research is planned to be extended to economic links and vulnerabilities as well as other societal issues.