PoliticsNews & AnalysisPlease sort out the backyard before talking climate


Posted on Friday, 28 September 2012 09:59

Please sort out the backyard before talking climate

Even without the threat of burning skies, issues such as health care and education, ecosystem restoration, and boring old conservation still need our attention if we intend to have enough to eat and drink in the decades ahead. It might be time to think a bit more again about all those old-fashioned concepts that were on everyone's agenda before climate change.

These days it's perilously unfashionable to say, "maybe that storm was normal for this time of year" or "maybe we should have planned for flooding in this area." It is more convenient to blame every natural disaster on climate change and ignore such manageable (and therefore unromantic) problems as river degradation. If we keep our focus on faraway atmospheric pollution, we might just be able to forget that we need to sort out our own backyards. But while climate change offers a neat framework to address so many of the things we got wrong in our development rush, even without it we would still have increasing flood and storm damage, food and water shortages, species extinction, regional conflicts, and so on.

Climate change makes all these problems worse over a long period of time, but these challenges been an immediate part of our lives. We have always, for example, known flooding. The mistake we make is in building in areas whose natural geological function is to be flooded periodically. And then we make things worse by degrading our river systems and catchment areas and forcing our rivers to flow faster and fuller than they would normally do, scouring out crops, people's homes and the occasional dam as they charge downhill.

Rivers are intricate systems. Healthy catchments with healthy plant cover collect rainwater in healthy soils and release it gradually and very well filtered, into streams and rivers. On its way to the sea, the river itself undergoes astounding transformation, now a fast flow on hard granite, now a meander through thick black soils and now an indulgent trickle through rich wetland mud. Over a longer period than this planet has known humans, systems have evolved so that each region, even each stream, has a unique relationship between plant, soil, climate and animals that maintains exquisite overall functionality. Of course it's not entirely as romantic as this simplification makes out - systems are always changing; but there is also always response that keeps balance.

Reducing our own survival potential

But what we do as rulers of the earth is : we come into a beautiful catchment and dig out the grasslands or fynbos to plant exotic timber pine; or we drain lovely muddy wetlands for crops; or we put too much cattle on the land; or we build a town or a city or a housing estate in a floodplain or too close to a river. We reduce the functionality of rivers and their catchments, we remove natural filters and checks on water flow, we degrade land and increase erosion, and we replace soft absorbing surfaces with harsh hardness: we convert complexity into a simple sewer. Sewers don't meander or trickle; they gush gracelessly, and they aren't sensitive to what or who they might drown or damage. In this hostile conversion, we reduce our water security, we increase flood events, we reduce our crop potential, and we make our developments vulnerable. We put direct pressure too, on people.

In some places where timber trees are planted, people lose their farming land and are forced to move to cities, with other economic pressures helping the migration. Degraded land reduces the farming potential for subsistence and commercial farmers. Some housing developments are built with corrugated iron and recycled sign boards; for many, marginal land is all that's accessible in urban areas, and often this means floodplains. So when we degrade our ecosystems, we directly reduce our own survival potential.

These are problems that many know well, have solutions for, and are begging for large scale action on. So what would that mean in practice? Staying with rivers: manage land well and select crops and livestock with sensitivity to the soil and climate conditions;  improving access to education and health to help people take good care of their land in the long term; clear out alien plant infestations and rehabilitate catchment soils; protect natural riverine vegetation and rehabilitate rivers and wetlands; create opportunities for diverse livelihoods in rural areas and provide good housing where needed and so on. There is nothing new about all this, in other words, and a lot of it is already being implemented on some level.

Climate change forces us to factor in different future environmental conditions. A community in rural KwaZulu-Natal who might want to build a rainwater harvesting system for irrigation might adjust the plan to factor in longer dry periods. Or a livestock farmer in southern Namibia who offers thanks for the heavy rainfall this year might, instead of increasing his livestock, rather save the abundant grazing for dry years ahead. Or rural health planning might mean both a primary health care clinic and clean energy systems, and good land management would have positive implications for health, income, and soil carbon storage.

But all of these are primarily good development practices that are easy to implement, and which would make surviving climate change a lot more possible. While climate change adds an inconceivably heavy weight to the urgency for sustainability in our interactions with each other and our life support system, the starting point would, in fact, be our own direct relationship with our land, rivers and coasts.

Rehana Dada is a freelance science and environmental journalist.

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