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Adapting to multiple stresses in Sekhukhune, South Africa

Multiple Authors

Feeling Stressed: Integrating Climate Adaptation with Other Priorities in South Africa, Gina Ziervogel and Anna Taylor

This is an extract from an article which appeared in the journal Environment Volume 50(2) p32-41.

Adaptation can be understood as an innate and ongoing process of finding ways to respond to stresses that reduce or combat negative impacts and harness potential benefits of change. A key concern is that with new money being made available for climate change research, policy development, and practice, people may place too much emphasis on addressing this as an isolated priority to the detriment of tackling other equally pressing social, economic, and environmental issues or finding integrated responses.

In response to this concern, a grow­ing number of people are exploring how communities have and might respond to climate as one of a number of interacting stresses. Because climate stressors affect many aspects of our socioecological system, including water, health, food secu­rity, and agriculture, it is not difficult to intuitively make the connection between adaptation and development challenges such as combating un- and underemployment; improving access to water and sanitation, health care, and education; and empowering people in key decisionmak­ing processes. Following from this, one can see the potential for climate change to hamper the attainment of international development targets, for example, the Millennium Development Goals.

The nature of climate change presents many challenges in facilitating adaptation, as there are high levels of uncertainty in much of the climate science, and climate is only one of many stressors that people are faced with. In many places, changes in the climate affect the nature, magnitude, and frequency of a number of existing stresses experienced, while in others it may present completely new threats, such as flooding caused by ris­ing sea levels and disease outbreaks in areas where they have not previously occurred. Equally likely to affect people are a number of stressors that have little or no connection to climate, but which are perceived to be even more pressing. So the impacts of climate change need to be understood and adapted to in the context of multiple stressors. There is an important time element associated with this, as people tend to be more aware of and motivated to act on immediate, more tangible stresses than on climate change, which can have slow onset and incremental impacts.

Community group in Ga-Selala village, Sekhukhune, completing the survey (Photo: Gina Ziervogel)

To better understand the dynamic nature of vulnerability and people’s coping and adaptation strategies, ongoing research in Sekhukhune investigates what stres­sors people think are most pressing, what climate impacts are being felt, and how people are trying to deal with these chal­lenges. People experience and respond to stressors on many scales; in this research, particular focus was placed on the village (local) and municipal (district) scale to understand how actors’ perceptions and activities compare. Four questions guided the research:

  • What stressors are perceived as most acute?
  • How do actors prioritize responses to these stressors?
  • How do these perceptions and priorities differ between the village and municipal level?
  • How might the prioritized stressors be impacted by climate change, and how do people understand of the need to adapt within a sustainable development framework?

Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 20 households, followed by a number of focus groups, held separately with men and women, and the completion of a survey with 100 village respondents. Semi-structured interviews were also conducted with officials from the local and district municipalities. In two follow-up visits, the initial analysis was fed back to and discussed with the participants, highlighting differences in perception and the need for more integrated research to understand the interactions between various stressors and prioritize actions in view of differential decisionmaking power and responsibilities. The outcomes show how climate issues can be factored into research and practice from a broader development perspective (including apportioning and directing funding).

Sekhukhune Context

The history of Sekhukhune is one filled with conflict, predominantly over land rights and the power to govern. Under apartheid (until 1994), much of Sekhukhune formed part of the Lebowa homeland, an area designated for black people of the Pedi ethnic group under the previous government’s racial segregation and separate development policies, which has shaped the current environment in terms of politics, demographics, the economy, and the natural and built environment. Now the Greater Sekhukhune District consists of five municipalities. Two villages were chosen for in-depth research: Mohlotsi and Ga-Selala, located within Marble Hall and Greater Tubatse municipalities respectively.

The district of Greater Sekhukhune cov­ers an area of 13,264 square kilometers and has a population of about 1,125,000, of which approximately 13 percent reside in Marble Hall and 28 percent in Tubatse municipalities respectively. Of the total population, about 56 percent are under the age of 19 years, nearly 95 percent live in rural areas, and about 66 percent have no formal education.

A mine in Sekhukhune (Photo: Gina Ziervogel)

Sekhukhune lies in the summer rainfall region of South Africa, receiving a mean annual rainfall of between 500 and 800 millimeters. The main economic activities in Sekhukhune are mining and irrigated agriculture. Platinum, chrome, gold, and palladium mines are situated in the eastern part of the district, and large commercial irrigated farms in the west. A variety of agricultural products are grown, including citrus fruit, table grapes, vegetables, maize, wheat, cotton, and livestock. Scarcity of water is hampering growth in both the agricultural and mining sectors, as is the uncertain status of land ownership, with 75 percent of the land in Sekhukhune currently under land claims.

Despite these commercial activities in the area, there is a high level of poverty, with 84 percent of people defined as poor (having less than 1,500 South African rands (R) per household per month) and 66 percent defined as very poor (having less than R550 per month). Sparse rain­fall and high evaporation rates limit the success of subsistence farming activities, which include growing maize, pumpkins, and sorghum and rearing cattle, goats, and chickens. Many people in Sekhukhune are not formally economically active. Unemployment in Sekhukhune currently stands at 69 percent, much higher than the provincial average of 49 percent. This causes many people to migrate to other parts of the country in search of work.

Stresses identified in Sekhukune

Drawing on the analysis and discussions that were had with various stake­holders, a number of things have become clear:

  • There is a whole suite of stressors that effect people in Sekhukhune, of which climate is one.
  • A number of climate impacts are mediated through or intensified by other existing sources of vulnerability, such as unemployment.
  • Because of their experiences and priorities, different stakeholders view the problems differently and act accordingly.
  • Many people are developing and implementing strategies at various scales to cope with existing challenges and adapt to perceived changes; resource deficiencies, however, act as a great constraint to this.
  • There is a poor understanding and appreciation between groups of the limi­tations and frustrations felt by other stake­holders.
  • The lack of effective communication between stakeholder groups (villagers, government officials, and researchers) is curtailing participation in decisionmaking and thereby disempowering all from facilitating positive change (in the form of adaptation and sustainable development).

This highlights a number of challenges that we face and the need for investing in the process of developing adaptation and development pathways as much as, if not more than, trying to buy outcomes. The complexity of the problem highlights the need for an integrated approach to tack­ling it. There needs to be inter-sectoral planning that incorporates climate information into the decisionmaking process. Researchers have to become better at engaging key stakeholders and sharing their knowledge of the science and the expected implications for people. Public participation needs to be enhanced to enable active engagement in the process, ensure priorities are sufficiently aligned, and increase awareness of the existing opportunities and limitations.

Moving Forward in a Changing Environment

Acknowledging the complexity associated with the feedback between expo­sure to multiple stressors, interventions, responses, and outcomes, the question we are left with is how one best goes about funding climate adaptation on the ground so that it supports development in a holistic manner while addressing the challenge of climate change impacts. Is the international and national funding that is being made available for adaptation accessible to people at a range of scales? What would be suitable criteria for financing an adaptation project that addresses the needs as identified by the people themselves, who see climate as secondary to many other stresses?

Women’s cooperative making clay pots in Ga-Selala village, Sekhukhune (Photo: Gina Ziervogel)

Having investigated the Sekhukhune case, one can start to suggest some answers. First it is important to contextualize the climate adaptation challenges within the broader goings on in South Africa. As pointed out earlier, although climate change is receiving increased support at the policy level, the commitment and ability to act on the ground is still limited. Funding therefore needs to support other national priorities while addressing the climate change concerns.

Home gardens growing maize in Ga-Selala village, Sekhukhune (Photo: Gina Ziervogel)

In Sekhukhune district, numerous types of adaptation could be supported at the local and district level. Although some of the direct impacts of climate change are expected to be greatest in terms of impact­ing agriculture and water supply, the adap­tation strategies range from changing crop varieties to moving out of agriculture into small businesses, and municipal adapta­tion plans that address resource allocation and improved response to extreme climate events. Adaptation actions at the activity scale include conservation agriculture and home gardens. Home gardens address local food needs and are supported within the national Integrated Food and Nutrition Security Programme. Careful consideration needs to be given to how this strategy might be affected by climate variability and what institutional support is needed to ensure success.

Other adaptation strategies might focus on improving access to climate informa­tion and changing policies to support water conservation. It is important to rec­ognize that the political and sociocultural environment is often as important in deter­mining adaptation strategies and actions as the physical conditions. As a result, adaptation is often highly constrained by prevailing circumstances, and support is needed at multiple levels to build adaptive capacity and support village-level development. Improved social safety nets and micro-finance schemes that empower people and are sensitive to their needs rather than generating increased depen­dency might be one way to achieve this. Economic opportunities need to be created locally, possibly by stimulating local businesses, adding value to local produce, and creating markets. Government cannot address all needs, so public-private part­nerships need to be explored.

It is clear from the range of necessary adaptation options in Sekhukhune that funding would need to address multiple scales and sectors. Most adaptation funding is currently project focused and would not encourage this holistic approach. Yet, funding this holistic response would be challenging to monitor and would overlap with responses that might be consid­ered the domain of other funding mechanisms.

A focus on the local scale has helped to highlight that in developing climate adaptation projects and screening adaptation portfolios in terms of funding priorities, governments and funders need to consider people’s vulnerability to a number of interacting stressors and place this in the context of a range of possible climate futures for an area. One of the associated challenges is finding people with the necessary skills to understand and use climate information and work with a variety of stakeholders. Money can and should be well spent on building this capacity. Another challenge is finding tools and approaches that support a holistic response.

Contact: email Gina ; Anna

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