Most concerning environmental issues in South Africa

South Africa currently faces many environmental issues, including global warming, air pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification and waste. These environmental issues represent a threat to people’s health and livelihoods.

Soil erosion, pollution and drought impede South African farmers’ ability to make a living and also food security. Global warming increases the spread of disease, as well as heat-related illnesses. A 2021 study found that global warming is probably causing over five million excess deaths each year.

South Africa’s environmental issues are not mutually exclusive – they are mostly connected. For example, deforestation is an environmental issue in its own right, but it also contributes to soil erosion and global warming, while also destroying protection against air pollution. The linked nature of the problems means we should look for shared causes and solutions rather than treating them in isolation. Fossil fuel use is the main cause of global warming, but it also causes air pollution and water pollution. A shift to cleaner energy sources could solve many problems at once.

Air pollution: The silent killer

Scientists have described air pollution as “the silent killer“. It causes over seven million premature deaths annually. Immediate exposure to air pollution causes obvious symptoms, such as coughing and difficulty breathing, so the link to respiratory problems is obvious.

But, air pollution is linked to many other health problems, potentially affecting every organ in the body. Smaller particles are the most dangerous because they can find their way into the bloodstream to expose every cell in the body. It has even been linked to cognitive problems, which is particularly risky for a child’s brain that is still developing.

South Africa was ranked 39th globally for its air pollution in 2021, but this figure hides the true health impact. While people in rural areas may breathe cleaner air, industrial areas have emissions well above the global average. A 2019 Greenpeace report found that Mpumalanga is the world’s worst hotspot for power plant emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Industrial chimney giving off visible smoke

Patrick Hendry

The most dangerous air pollutants are fine particles of less than 2.5 microns in width, which are small enough to enter the bloodstream. These are known as PM2.5.  The coal-fired power plants and industrial cluster in Mpumalanga represent a substantial public health risk because of the volume of PM2.5 generated.

In 2019, Greenpeace used satellite data to rank Mpumalanga as the worst place in the world for industrial nitrous oxide pollution. This is dangerously close to the Gauteng City Region, home to nearly a quarter of South Africa’s population. As a result, air pollution from Mpumalanga has caused premature deaths in Johannesburg and other areas, such as Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.

A 2021 study found that around 50,000 South Africans die each year from causes linked to air pollution. This environmental issue is clearly linked to the combustion of fossil fuels, primarily from coal plants.

Global warming and extreme weather events

The warming of the Earth causes various environmental issues. One of the effects of global warming is an increased rate of extreme weather events, such as drought, flooding and storms.

When the Durban area was flooded in April 2022, it was described as “one of the worst weather storms in the history of our country”. Yet, in May 2022, it happened again. Hundreds of people in and around Durban were forced to flee their homes as flooding turned parts of the city into “inaccessible islands”. Climate change makes this kind of extreme weather event more common. “Once in a lifetime” events become regular occurrences.

Global warming also increases the frequency of drought. South Africa has an average annual rainfall of around 464 millimetres, making it a relatively dry country. If it gets even drier due to global warming, this could cause water stress. In 2019, there were calls for the town of Harding to be declared a disaster area after water sources dried up. This kind of situation will be more common in a warming world. Water stress is likely to hit the farming sector hard. This will hurt the economy and could lead to food shortages.

Environmental issue: Drought

Mike Erskine

Biodiversity loss and climate change

The Bioversity Finance Initiative ranks South Africa as the third most biodiverse country in the world. Approximately 10 per cent of the world’s known plant species are from South Africa. The Cape region alone has over 1,500 genera of plants – 30 per cent of which are not native to any other part of the world. South Africa is also home to a wide variety of animal life, including rare and endangered species. Scientists classify our country as “megadiverse” because it contains many of the world’s species.

Climate change threatens this biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that if global warming reaches 2°C over pre-industrial levels, many species will find over half the areas they currently occupy to be uninhabitable. 18 per cent of insects, 16 per cent of plants and eight per cent of vertebrates could lose half their habitats. South Africa would lose its identity as a country world-famous for its species richness, which is likely to affect tourism. Furthermore, losing pollinating insects could harm an agricultural sector already struggling with water stress.

Species loss will still occur if we succeed in keeping global warming below 1.5°C but to a much lesser extent.


Environmental issues: Waste

Evan Demicoli

Waste management is one of the more serious environmental issues that South Africa faces. Household waste is increasing because of a growing population. Under the South African Constitution, municipalities are responsible for refuse removal, refuse dumps and solid waste disposal. Unfortunately, however, they are struggling to do this, as budgets are not enough to cover all the basic services. Therefore, waste management competes for funding with essentials, such as water, sanitation and electricity. South African households generate about 12.7 tonnes of waste annually. 3.67 million tonnes of this goes to illegal dumping sites instead of going through formal waste collection systems.

If we divert more waste from landfills and utilise the materials, we could unlock a value of R17 billion per year. But, at the moment, between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of solid waste goes to landfills.

Electronic waste is a growing problem as technology becomes more affordable. The World Economic Forum says that “e-waste” is the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet. South Africa generates about 6.2 kilograms of e-waste per person annually, and only 12 per cent of that is recycled. The materials in e-waste are valuable, but they can be toxic. Unfortunately, many people dismantling electronics to reclaim these materials for resale are not employed by an official recycling programme. This means that they often work without personal protective equipment. Consequently, they are vulnerable to the health risks of touching and breathing in these materials.

Industrial waste is another big environmental issue. The country has millions of tonnes of coal waste. In the past, the spontaneous combustion of coal heaps has led to dangerous levels of air pollution.

One first step: Move away from fossil fuels

Row of wind turbines at sunset

Rabih Shasha

One change that could help with these environmental issues is to move away from fossil fuels. As outlined above, coal is a major contributor to South Africa’s problems with air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. At COP26 in November 2021, South Africa joined other countries in signing the Political Declaration on the Just Energy Transition in South Africa. This notes an intention to “decommission and repurpose or repower coal-fired power stations” and invest in new technology, such as renewable energy.

The government’s 2019 Integrated Resource Plan now looks outdated in its reluctance to accept the need for a total phase-out of coal. It also places too much emphasis on natural gas; a risky strategy. Gas may burn more cleanly than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel that generates greenhouse gas emissions. It also has the same problems as other fossil fuels: price volatility, supply issues and environmental risks.

South Africa must move away from all fossil fuels. This will help with energy security and create high-quality new jobs. This means a more resilient economy. It is time for a new energy policy to allow South Africa to reach its true potential.

Most concerning environmental issues in South Africa