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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘Day Zero’ drought poses biggest potential threat to Gauteng’s economy, warns climatologist

‘Day Zero’ drought poses biggest potential threat to Gauteng’s economy, warns climatologist
A field of failed maize due to drought on a farm in Glendale, Zimbabwe, on 11 March 2024. (Photo: Cynthia R Matonhodze / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Southern Africa has just emerged from the dry El Niño weather phenomenon, which led Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to declare national states of disaster over the drought after reduced crop yields. Such a drought would be disastrous in Gauteng, with its water system already experiencing ongoing challenges.

The biggest threat to Gauteng’s economy is a “Day Zero” drought in the province, said Professor Francois Engelbrecht, a climatologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, during a webinar on Monday, 5 June.

Engelbrecht was speaking at a Presidential Climate Commission webinar on the intersections of climate, biodiversity and economics. 

He said climate models predicted dire conditions that mostly included drier and warmer conditions threatening biodiversity, agriculture, water security and livelihoods. 

“It is critical that we think about unprecedented risks, things we’ve never seen before. If they are unexpected they are disastrous. We must think of droughts to the magnitude of things we’ve never seen before; so much so that our reliable Integrated Vaal System that has never let us down will not be able to supply Gauteng with water. The Gauteng ‘Day Zero’ drought; that is our biggest single economic risk,” said Engelbrecht.

Earlier this year, Johannesburg experienced water outages during a prolonged heatwave. Rand Water, the bulk water supplier, said the increased need for water during this time had rendered the utility unable to meet demand.

Johannesburg also experienced water cuts this year after a lightning strike at the Eikenhof pump station and the subsequent failure to close a critical valve, preventing water from flowing to residents, particularly in Randburg.

Although dams in the province remain full, the City of Johannesburg has struggled with infrastructure and supply challenges caused by mismanagement. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: As Rand Water warns of wider system collapse, Soweto and Johannesburg taps still dry

‘Days of global warming’

In 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared southern Africa a climate change hotspot. The region is already warm and dry with very little room for adapting to the climate crisis events and consequences, Engelbrecht said.

Southern Africa has just emerged from the dry El Niño weather phenomenon, resulting in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe declaring national states of disaster over the drought that reduced crop yields and forced a shorter planting season.

The weather phenomenon, which has now passed, saw a rainfall deficit of about 300mm between October 2023 and May 2024. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Explainer — El Niño’s impact and what to expect from La Niña 

“We are now living in the dawn of the era of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. The first 12-month period that has exceeded the threshold [was] between February 2023 and January 2024. May 2023 to April 2024 were the warmest 12 months ever recorded by humans. We are now 1.61 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average temperature of the planet. 

“We are indeed living in the days of global warming. We are probably already living in the first decade in which the average temperature will be 1.5 degrees warmer…

“The chance that we did have maybe five years ago to avoid this threshold from being reached has come and gone. It is now going to be about trying to prevent global warming from reaching a 2-degree threshold,” Engelbrecht said. 

Time to prepare

Áron Hartvig, a project manager at Cambridge Econometrics, said that for South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) to grow as the world seeks to prevent a 2°C global average temperature increase, the country would need to decarbonise. 

“If South Africa decides to decarbonise while the rest of the world remains under a business as usual scenario, then the South African GDP would be 8.6% higher compared with not decarbonising in the country. If the world decides to decarbonise, but South Africa remains under a business as usual scenario, then the GDP would shrink — mapped to emissions targets of SA,” Hartvig said.  

“The loss of GDP from South Africa remaining under a business as usual scenario is due to a loss of exports, since the rest of the world decreases its fossil demand for coal, the country’s coal export decreases and the economy starts to shrink. However, should South Africa decarbonise, the domestic demand for coal starts to decrease.”

Top climate scientists, in IPCC reports, have shown time and again that mitigation is lagging and that urgent action is required to keep a 2°C threshold within reach. As early as 2021, the organisation warned that mitigation measures had been implemented too late. 

Engelbrecht said, “There is no realistic way that we think we can phase out oil and gas quickly enough to think that we still stand a chance to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius … We now have to increasingly prepare for the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.” DM

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