Climate change, hunger and South Africa’s future

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger will stay a pipe dream for South Africans if no adaptation strategies for global warming are put in place, warn climate change researchers at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

A new climate change impact synthesis report titled “Climate change impacts in South Africa: What climate change means for a country and its people”, compiled by Dr Peter Johnston, Dr Temitope Egbebiyi, Luckson Zvobogo, Dr Sabina Abba Omar, Anton Cartwright and Prof. Bruce Hewitson, highlights the effects of climate change on South Africa and its impact on people’s lives.
South Africa faces many social and economic challenges, such as food insecurity and high unemployment rates, and agriculture remains one of the most crucial sectors of the economy. It is therefore unsurprising that the report focuses on agricultural vulnerabilities that climate change has created.

Climate change could worsen hunger in South Africa.

Insufficient adaptation to climate change will impact agriculture in South Africa and could exacerbate hunger.
Credit: iStock images

According to the United Nations, the global issue of hunger and food insecurity has shown an alarming increase since 2015. This trend has been exacerbated by a combination of factors, including the pandemic, climate change, and deepening inequalities.

Even before the pandemic, South Africa was no stranger to ongoing poverty and unemployment. The UCT report states that over 20% of South Africans are food insecure, with one in four children experiencing stunted growth because of undernutrition.

Food insecurity and agriculture in South Africa

The vulnerability of the agricultural sector (notably rain-fed agriculture) to climate change will compound the existing lack of access to food, “resulting in an increase in hunger and malnutrition”, says Dr Temitope Egbebiyi, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the UCT Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG).

This will also negatively impact export earnings in South Africa, he adds, as agricultural exports are significant contributors to the South African economy. Commercial farms account for 3 quarters of agricultural land, producing fruit, wine, vegetables, cereals, wool, and meat for both the domestic market and for international export. In 2021/22, agriculture contributed 2.5% to the gross domestic product.

And, at ground level, this sector is known as a big employer. At least a third of South Africans between the ages of 16 and 64 are unemployed – the highest rate in any G20 country. However, agriculture accounts for about 21% of those who are employed. Farm stays, wine-tasting and other agritourism activities generate additional income for farmers and seasonal workers.

Extreme weather events caused by climate change are likely to have severe impacts on crops and infrastructure. Heatwaves are projected to become hotter and more frequent, raising the risk of deadly heat stress. Similarly, severe droughts will happen more frequently. As land becomes less suitable for crops, extreme heat also causes a major threat to livestock.

With crop farms concentrated in just 12% of the country’s land area, lower production in these vital regions threatens food security. As for families and farming households, any extreme event that reduces production – such as a flood or a drought – is likely to threaten job security and income.

Farmers are adapting to the changing climate

For years, farmers have been doing what they can to survive – often with limited resources. “Many of South Africa’s farmers have proven their ability to adapt to changing climates, even in the absence of state support,” Anton Cartwright, Director at Econologic, remarks.

However, the fear of leaving people behind is real. Still bearing the legacy of apartheid, agriculture has been a strong focus for transformation in South Africa. Many emerging and communal farmers has joined the market, especially in rural parts of the country. About 2 to 3 million smallholder farmers produce food for their own households or for limited sale.

Small-scale and commercial farmers alike acknowledge the threat of climate change to their lives and farms. But there is concern that mitigative measures may not be enough under future climate scenarios, especially for small-scale farmers who are more vulnerable due to barriers such as limited access to finance and infrastructure.

“Climate change is and will continue to reduce the quality of South Africans’ lives, which can worsen inequalities within the country,” Dr Sabina Abba Omar, UCT Climate System Analysis Group, notes.

Adaptation can help address hunger

Given these issues, maintaining the stability and resilience of South Africa’s farming sector while mitigating the impact of climate change is crucial. According to the report, addressing climate change through nature-smart initiatives could simultaneously tackle inequality, poverty, and infrastructure failures, and lead to better outcomes than those of slow-moving state-led reform programmes.

According to Cartwright, future adaptation will depend on new research, new partnerships and a more inclusive sector. “South Africa has led calls for a ‘just transition’ in international climate negotiations – a process of putting people and livelihoods at the centre of climate responses. Given the contribution of the agricultural and conservation sectors to employment creation in South Africa, climate responses in these sectors form an important part of the country’s just transition,” he says.

Dr Peter Johnston, UCT Climate System Analysis Group, concludes: “South Africa is a well-resourced country, with a strong agricultural and biodiversity heritage. Climate change and socio-economic risks threaten to bring about huge change to this status. How South Africa copes with these changes will depend on the response of all its people, but especially policy makers and planners.”

Read the full report.
To cite this report: Johnston, P. et al. (2023). Climate change impacts in South Africa: What climate change means for a country and its people. University of Cape Town, South Africa.