23 June 2023

Climate And Self-Reliance

We have had some serious rainfall that has impacted on several of us in Cape Town during the past month. 

It is difficult to attribute photos that are shared on social media, but here are some photos from the two weeks of the extreme weather conditions.

This caused me to reflect on memories from a workshop that I attended at the United Nations offices in Trieste, Italy during 2002. I had been involved in research into climate change for some 12 years, and I found that my impressions were seriously blinkered. I was looking at the impacts on plant species, but was now surrounded by people dealing with health, epidemiology, agriculture, tourism, engineers, planners, physicists, hydrologists, climatologists, and many more!

One major take-home story is that there is an increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events. We have experienced this first-hand in Cape Town during June 2023.

Another major take-home story is that adaptation and coping take place at the local level – ultimately with you, with me, and with our own families. I was reminded of the concept that the nation is made up of its basic units – families. It is mainly individuals that are impacted, and it is mainly individuals that cope or do not cope.

I remember the account of Bangladesh, with 1/5 of the country being less than 1m above sea level, and most of the country under 10m altitude. They face rather dire consequences of sea level rise. Their homes are regularly inundated and so they do not accumulate things that will be great losses when the anticipated floods come. If the authorities build barriers around communities, the inhabitants will have a greater security as most of the extreme events will be held at bay. However, when events strike that are beyond the threshold for which the barriers are designed to cope, the inhabitants may experience heavy losses because they would have relaxed their coping strategies. We compared this to Mozambique where the Limpopo River had overflowed its banks and thousands of people were impacted. In Bangladesh flooding is an inconvenience, in Mozambique it was disastrous. The people of Bangladesh have a high level of coping capacity.

Yes, infrastructure is affected, but coping and adaptive behaviour is inherent in us as humans. For example, we can choose to reduce our vulnerability by not building on a flood plain of a river that has not broken its banks for 10 years, or on the slopes of a volcano, thus reducing our risk. Alternatively, we can undertake a cost benefit analysis, and we can decide that the risk is worth taking in order to have the temporary benefits of fertile soil for producing crops for our family. The question is whether we will have personal responsibility for coping with the impacts of flood (or a lava flow that might be rather more damaging) when they come thus experiencing a setback with which we can cope. Alternatively, if we are not prepared to cope, the flood will result in our experiencing a disaster.

Disaster was defined very subjectively, as is illustrated above. If the community can cope with a serious impact it is not a disaster. Some agencies may define it as a disaster because they decide that it is beyond certain extremes, but the local community may cope just fine. Alternatively, some minor impacts, on top of a generally poor circumstance in a community, can be a disaster because the people had not been able to build up their coping capacity or adapt to the impending disaster. When someone deliberately takes a serious risk, should the authorities bail them out when they experience a disaster? A tough question!

The man in charge of the workshop, while handing out certificates to participants during a dinner hosted by TWAS (the Third World Academy of Science), made fun of some participants who were out taking a smoke break, joking about their skills in risk assessment. This was in jest, but it does stress the importance for each of us to take responsibility for our part in mitigation. We need to take action by adapting our lifestyles according to our vulnerability, using wisdom in our risk assessment. We need to involve our stakeholders (primarily ourselves, and our family members), in preparing ourselves for sustainable livelihoods, considering our abilities to cope with the impacts of climate variability which are projected to become more frequent and more severe so that we will not just be statistics when disaster strikes. Now is the time to start preparing so that each of us will be part of the solution and not part of the problem!

I remember being struck by the realisation that for 90 years we had received prophetic counsel encouraging members to prepare themselves for disasters by having food storage – a focus on Home Production and Storage. We have been counseled for more than a century to improve our Coping Capacity by improving our self-reliance. More importantly than physical self-reliance, the Saviour counseled us to ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal; For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ (Matt 6:19-21). May we be serious and intentional in following these basic guidelines of temporal and spiritual self-reliance which will lead to our avoiding loss, or reducing the impact of loss.