The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, hailed as the world’s last best chance to effectively tackle climate change, is currently underway in Glasgow. You can read here about what the conference has achieved so far but, largely, the developing and island nations most vulnerable to climate change's impacts have been left on the sidelines. 

South Africa is one such country, with its biodiversity and ecosystems under threat. The country has a magnificent coastline where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean meet on its West Coast, boasting an incredibly rich marine wildlife. So how does climate change affect this kind of region specifically?

The Rainbow Nation's weather is characterised by a generally warmer climate that has cooler temperatures in high altitude regions. However, these past few decades we have seen a significant rise in extreme weather conditions.

This has resulted in more in-land droughts for a country that is already considered water-scarce. Droughts and water shortages have been plaguing the nation for decades, and saw a peak in 2015 when the city of Cape Town was nearing complete loss of water, declared as a national disaster.

Coastal regions, meanwhile, are experiencing a rise in flooding, amid more frequent and severe thunderstorms, raging winds, and even tropical cyclones. Areas like the Western Cape have seen rainfall of up to 30 millimeters. While this may seem like a welcome relief to the drought-prone province, it actually causes localised flooding and damage to infrastructure.

Human activity has also played a significant role in the degradation of South Africa's land and seas. A recent report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) named South Africa as the 11th worst in the world for contributing to ocean plastic. It is estimated that South Africa is responsible for 109,000 tonnes of plastic reaching the ocean each year — around 41 kg of plastic waste per citizen per year.

Global Citizen spoke to marine biologist Thembeka Shongwe to learn more about what climate change means for South Africa.

Thembeka ShongweSouth African Marine Biologist, Thembeka Shongwe. Supplied.

The 25-year-old is currently pursuing her masters in Ocean Sciences at the University of Cape Town. She is a young, Black woman with a love for aquaculture, and has a deep understanding of the marine environment and how climate change impacts ocean wildlife and South Africa's seas. She is also a newly appointed Technical Marketing Officer for Afrikelp — a company that provides seaweed solutions to boost agricultural performance.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine biology?

I didn’t intend on doing marine biology, I thought I was going to be a doctor. I’m from a small town in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, so I was never exposed to the ocean. I moved to Cape Town and six months into my first year of studying a BSc, there was a week where the topic was the ocean and I thought to myself that it was interesting that people have a career in the ocean.

Being a person of colour there is a lack of information in this particular career field. When I got back to my residence, I researched marine biology, and the next day I changed my degree.

My story is that I found the ocean to be a place of tranquility, serenity, and calmness, and I actually wanted it to be my everyday life. That is what inspired me to pursue marine biology and I became passionate about fisheries, aquaculture, and creating a voice for people of colour in this field — as I was the only person of colour, male and female, in my class.

What do you think are the biggest ocean-related problems facing the Global South?

One of the major issues right now is overfishing, specifically in the Global South. South Africa has such a beautiful and dynamic coastline; namely the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, all the way up to KwaZulu-Natal. The Western Cape is on the Benguela current which is characterised by a lot of hake. South Africa’s fishing industry makes most of its money from hake — we export it.

The fish stocks are declining because of this human activity. Of course, plastic pollution is also a major issue, but it is difficult to address in a developing country. One thing that people may not know is that a lot of this plastic is stuck in the ocean in huge gyres (a circular pattern of ocean currents).

Why is plastic pollution so difficult to address for developing countries?

Its because these nations lack the resources and technologies to combat plastic pollution. The economic state of the country makes it very difficult for people to use non-plastic products because basic living necessities have not yet been achieved. Third-world countries prioritise economic development and poverty reduction before giving consideration to environmental issues. Therefore, it is very difficult to address plastic pollution in a country where the majority are in the lower and middle class and are just trying to survive.

Environmental issues need awareness and money. We can make people aware of the impacts of plastic pollution, but if we can't provide them with a free alternative we will never be able to solve environmental issues such as plastic pollution. 

How have South Africa's in-land areas been affected by climate-related ocean changes?

Well, climate-related ocean changes have to do with global warming. Hot and dry places are just going to get hotter and drier, while wet and cold places are going to get wetter and colder. Global warming changes weather patterns.

In-land places like Limpopo and Mpumalanga are already experiencing extremely high temperatures reaching the 40 degrees Celsius range. Which means, as a nation, South Africa will be impacted in a negative way because these places are where farming is, and we will experience more droughts. Which means farmers need to think of new ways to combat drought.

What can the average South African do to help the planet?

My suggestions are going to seem a little extreme, it is something I am also struggling with. One thing that the average South African can do to help the planet is to decrease their meat and dairy intake and adopt a more plant-based diet, because cattle farming also contributes a lot to global warming.

Cows produce methane and this is one of the gasses that contribute to climate change. This is difficult to do because we’re not a developed country so the social implications include the loss of jobs. Young people should also speak up and as such, high school curriculums should teach and prioritise climate change because it’s harder to change an older person’s mind. The average South African can also carpool to work. Just lessen your carbon footprint or emissions as much as possible.

If you were attending COP26, what would your message be to world leaders?

Coming from a developing country, I would speak to the developed countries’ leaders and plead with them to invest in developing countries. It’s very easy for us to say “let’s combat climate change” but on a continent like Africa, a lot of the jobs we have contribute to climate change.

When we receive financial assistance we will be able to teach people new-age skills, resources, and developments instead of relying on things like coal. Instead of focusing on problems like our factories, which have a lot of gas emissions, and you do not want to trade with countries like ours, that’s not solving the problem. Rather give us the money to invest in solar power or develop electric cars, and so on.

It’s hard to implement climate change solutions in our region because we are worried about the next food on our table or money for transport for work tomorrow. Come at climate change in South Africa from a financial angle.

In addition to what I said earlier, developed countries need to also pledge to assist developing countries in supplying resources that will enable them to combat plastic pollution.

How would having more women, particularly women of colour, in your industry help reduce climate change?

I think right now the biggest problem is the "how" and the implementation. I feel like women, particularly women of colour, know how to implement things. By having women of colour in the climate-related field, it will really develop the implementation of things.

Women are always on their feet, things get done. They don’t just speak, they do, as they are “how” thinkers. Having more people of colour will ensure that policies that have been sitting there are implemented and that it is done well.

What message would you like to share with Global Citizens seeking to take climate action?

Everyone has Instagram. I think it’s very important to follow COP26 just so you are aware of how you are impacted by it. I think that people don’t want to be sitting and reading about things that don’t really matter to them. I think it’s important that people start to personalise things that are happening around them. We don’t have a personal relationship with the earth and the ocean as people.

That means if you are someone who loves sport, think about what is going to happen if temperatures have drastically increased. There’s not going to be any sport played! You can put it into perspective and speak up.

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