The contributing factors to South Africa’s escalating water issues aren’t just local. A recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that unless global action to limit human-induced warming to 1.5ºC by 2100 is successful, South Africa is likely to experience frequent ‘day zero’ events in the 2030s. This risk can be delayed by 30 years should effective global climate action be achieved.
South Africa’s water resources are under strain to meet the country’s growing demand. The pressure placed on these resources by an expanding population and increased agricultural and economic activities results in many catchments coming close to deficit during the dry season. While not being the primary protagonist of these deficits, climate change will speed up and widen the country’s water deficits.
Published in the journal Climatic Change in 2021, the research study presents projections of how temperature and precipitation over three sub-national regions — western, central, and eastern South Africa — are likely to change under a wide range of global climate mitigation policy scenarios.
The study concluded that under a business-as-usual scenario, in which no emissions or climate targets are set or met for all three regions, there’s a greater-than 50% likelihood that mid-century temperatures will increase threefold over the current climate’s range of variability and a three to four times greater likelihood of decreased precipitation over the western and central regions.
On the other hand, a 1.5ºC global climate mitigation policy would delay these risks by 30 years, giving South Africa lead time to prepare and adapt.
The current state of local water resource infrastructure makes this 30-year lead integral as significant time and investment are required to rehabilitate a system that has been crippled by corruption, mismanagement, and a lack of investment.
Although some advancements were made, COP26 unfortunately fell well short of delivering the national commitments that would together limit warming globally to 1.5ºC. This lack of coordinated commitment will have dire consequences for South Africa’s water supplies over the next decade.
If global mitigation is not possible, South Africa will need to rely on local adaption to survive. This will be particularly important in the country’s western region, home to the majority of South Africa’s economy, which is projected to experience the greatest water supply issues over the next decade.