“It’s gotten worse, boeta.”
For Nosintu Mcimeli Kwepile of the village of Ngqamakhwe in the Mnquma Municipality of the Eastern Cape, that was about the sum of it — the changing climate, as manifested in what Gift of the Givers was calling an “alarming drought,” had been wringing out the contents of her life as if she was an old dishcloth. The taps had been dry for more than a year, the local dam was down to 10% capacity and the heat and the wind were blowing through her village with the promise of suffering to come.
“I was speaking to someone here yesterday,” she said, “telling him that these big words, like climate change and climate crisis, it’s real man, it’s affecting us, especially the community on the ground.”
The thing was, as Mcimeli explained, life had been a lot easier back when she had water. Lately, her children had been sharing just one cup before going off to school. When cooking a pot of porridge, she could no longer “cook it full”. Also, the gardens of Ngqamakhwe were a thing of the past.
“It’s so horrible,” she said. “We used to have gardens. Mamas used to have veggies in their yards. You can’t plant anything now. It’s just… it’s yellow, it’s yellow. Because the grass must be green and here it is yellow all over.”
But the drought, which had been declared an emergency under the Disaster Management Act in February 2018, wasn’t showing any signs of letting up. Contrary to the view of Gwede Mantashe, the new boss of South Africa’s mining and energy super-ministry, the problem was not going to be fixed by technology. Where Mantashe had been promising that “clean coal” and carbon capture and storage would arrest the collapse of the climate, the University of Fort Hare had been focusing on the less esoteric issue of crop failure. Based in the rural Eastern Cape town of Alice, the university was concerned above all with what people were going to eat.
Among the studies conducted by the university’s Risk and Vulnerability Science Centre had been one that looked at “the effects of climate change on small-scale farmers,” another that assessed the “perceptions of rural communities” on “climate change adaptation strategies,” and a third that reviewed the impact of “climate change disasters” on “vulnerable rural households”.
In other words, the economic growth agenda of a well-fed apparatchik, who from the comfort of his government office was cherry-picking the science, meant little to these dedicated academics — for them, as for the country’s most prominent climate model scientist, the fact that South Africa was warming at twice the global average was a fact that was just going to make the drought worse.
And just like the Fort Hare academics, the thing that was bothering Mcimeli was the matter of peoples’ survival. Back in February 2019, when Gift of the Givers, Africa’s largest disaster response NGO, arrived in Makhanda on short notice to deliver water to the locals, they assumed they would be needed for no more than five days. But soon they were taking calls from municipalities throughout the adjacent Amathole District, where over 50,000 people in 100 villages had been without water for several months.
Ngqamakhwe was not one of those villages, so for Mcimeli there was no relief. Her only recourse, as ever, was local government.
“They have no idea what you are talking about,” she said, “Nosintu, who is that? They are so undermining.”
According to Mcimeli, a councillor had promised to accompany her to a meeting of the Eastern Cape Water Caucus, but in the end didn’t pitch.
Daily Maverick was met with a different move. Had the local councillor (as per the number provided by Mcimeli) not pretended to be someone else, we would have asked her about the disaster management plan. Was there one? If not, given the documented effects of drought on the fragile human psyche, was there a working draft?
“You know, the drought here ignites gender-based violence,” said Mcimeli, echoing what she had told Daily Maverick back in March 2019. “The young guys used to work in the gardens, but now they have nothing to do.”
The frustrations of the young men, which were being expressed in attacks on the women, a phenomenon that had been linked to extreme weather events as far afield as the United States, were connected in turn to deeper frustrations. The first day of every month, said Mcimeli, was government grant day — the day that the most urgent priority of the villagers was out in plain view.
“Those times when there was rain, you didn’t see lots of people queuing in town. Because we used to have our own food, boeta, we used to have gardens. Now the shops are full, full, full. And the prices. If you’ve got R300, you’ve got nothing.”
On 12 July 2019, unremarked upon by a national media corps that was following the civil war in the executive branch, the town of Makhanda hit Day Zero. The local Grocott’s Mail, South Africa’s oldest newspaper, at 148 years, put out a story that was remarkable for its understatement — at 11.2% capacity, water could no longer be pumped from the Howieson’s Poort Dam. At 6.3%, the Settlers Dam, which supplied the western side of town, had been out of commission for months.
Nowhere in the story was there a mention of the unhinged planetary climate, nor had the contributors dug into the archives to see if such a thing had happened in the past. But a message from the municipality’s operation manager, cut and pasted from social media, ended with:
“Godspeed, folks. It’s going to be a tough road ahead.”
Less than a month later, on 6 August 2019, the New York Times ran a headline that placed the fate of the residents of Makhanda in its apposite global context:
“A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crisis,” it stated.
The article, which was based on a report by the World Resources Institute, referred to the fact that in major cities across the globe the groundwater was disappearing. Mexico City was drawing groundwater so fast it was “literally sinking”; Dhaka in Bangladesh was now drawing on aquifers hundreds of feet deep; Chennai in India was “finding there’s none left.”
“We’re likely to see more of these Day Zeros in the future,” a representative from the global institute told the newspaper. “The picture is alarming in many places around the world.”
Climate crisis was clearly identified as the factor driving the vicious cycle — at the same time that erratic rainfall had been rendering water supply less reliable, noted the New York Times, hotter days had been causing reservoirs to evaporate.
And then, two days later, on 8 August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the report for which the global community of scientists, policymakers, journalists and activists had long been waiting. Titled in full the “IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems,” it had been touted as the most comprehensive investigation into the relationship between land and climate ever undertaken.
The final version of the report delivered on the promise. Compiled by 107 leading scientists from 52 countries, with 7,000 peer-reviewed papers assessed and 53% of the authors from developing countries — a welcome mix, given that the IPCC had known for decades that the poor in Africa, Asia and South America would be most affected — the 41-page summary for policymakers contained many lines that would have been no surprise to Mcimeli.
For instance: “Climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions (high confidence).”
And: “Increasing impacts on land are projected under all future GHG emission scenarios (high confidence).”
Meaning, while the climate deniers in their alt-right enclaves were getting more aggressiveand more shrill, the governments of the world and their fossil fuel buddies could no longer use them as foils.
“It’s been nine years now,” said Tembakazi Peter. “The rivers are drying. This is the situation that we are living.”
A resident of Mount Frere in the Alfred Nzo District of the Eastern Cape, Peter was sharing a three-bedroom house with 18 people.
“Sometimes we wake up at 4am to fetch water, before the livestock is out,” she went on, referring to the fact that the humans in Mount Frere were competing with animals for the resource.
“Some days there is no water. Then we don’t cook, we just buy bread.”
As a self-described activist, a member of Farmers Network South Africa, she was, like Mcimeli, taking the issue up with government.
“When was it? The twenty-something of June. We went to our provincial offices, the legislature. We went there to give our premier our demands, because of this climate change. Because this climate change is affecting us. But then up to this far, we never heard anything from the premier’s office.”
And what did she want him to do?
“No, we want him to come this side and see what we are telling him.”
A reasonable request, it seemed. Because a key thing that the IPCC had now highlighted was that there was a choice that needed to be made. The choice, as summarised by the Guardian, was between a vicious and virtuous cycle. Along with an end to the age of fossil fuels, the report had called for a sharp scaling down of industrial farming practices, actions that allowed soils and forests to regenerate, the cutting of meat consumption and food waste and the planting of drought-resistant crops.
The first section of the report covered the impacts of global heating, with the IPCC affirming in the strongest possible terms that the phenomenon was now real, irrefutable and playing out in real time — not least because human land use had grown to affect more than 70% of the ice-free land surface of the planet.
“Since the pre-industrial period,” the text noted, “the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature.”
This rise of 1.53°C since 1850, as against the 0.87°C rise in mean global temperatures, was already above the 1.5°C aspiration that the 2015 Paris Agreement had laid down as a goal — the line beyond which, as per the IPCC special report of October 2018, the fabric of modern civilisation would begin to unravel. And where last year’s report had focused on what would happen if humanity did not reach the 1.5°C target — an effort, the panel made clear, that “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” — the land report focused on what was happening already.
“Warming has resulted in an increased frequency, intensity and duration of heat-related events, including heatwaves in most land regions (high confidence),” it stated on page 5 of the summary for policymakers. “Frequency and intensity of droughts has increased in some regions (including the Mediterranean, west Asia, many parts of South America, much of Africa, and north-eastern Asia) (medium confidence) and there has been an increase in the intensity of heavy precipitation events at a global scale (medium confidence).”
Agriculture, forestry and other land use was now responsible for 23% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the report found, with that figure rising to 37% if emissions associated with pre- and post-production activities in the global food system were included. In terms of the vicious feedback loop this was inflicting on the world, a standout finding from the report was the fact that soil erosion from conventionally-tilled agricultural fields was 100 times higher than the soil formation rate.
At 1°C average global heating, soil erosion — like dryland water scarcity, vegetation loss, wildfire damage, permafrost degradation, tropical crop yield decline and food supply instabilities — would kick into what the IPCC termed “increasingly severe” cascading risks. Land vegetation, as a sink for carbon dioxide, would lose its effectiveness as the planet continued to heat; the projected thawing of permafrost would “increase the loss of soil carbon (high confidence)”; and increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would in turn “lower the nutritional quality of crops (high confidence).”
A business-as-usual land use scenario, the science was telling us, would sail humanity into the perfect storm. But, as mentioned, the IPCC charted a course around the impending catastrophe — a method for mitigation and adaptation that it laid out in the land and climate report’s 200-page fifth chapter, titled simply “Food Security”.
In this chapter, the panel noted that “consumption of healthy and sustainable diets presents major opportunities for reducing GHG emissions from food systems,” and provided as an example diets “high in coarse grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.” It stated that combined food loss and waste accounted for a third of global food production, costing the United States alone $1 trillion per year, and that “improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure and packaging” would both lower GHG emissions and enhance food security. It also declared that public health policies to improve nutrition – such as “school procurement, health insurance incentives, and awareness-raising campaigns” – could potentially change demand, reduce health-care costs and mitigate against emissions.
At the launch of the report in Geneva on the morning of 8 August, Hans Portner, the co-chair of the IPCC working group on land and climate, put it like this:
“The food system has the potential to adapt to climate change and avoid additional risks by diversifying. There are ways to manage land and reduce risks for ecosystems and people, and clearly, early action is the most cost-effective.”
And so in the Eastern Cape, if it wasn’t too late for “early” action, was it too late for no action at all?
As always, the answer to the question depended on whether the crooked were able to play straight. DM