Domestic strategies to address the impact of climate change on water resources

This brief explores the strategies adopted in South Africa to address climate-related impacts on water resources.

Responding to climate change

With rising temperatures, climate-related impacts are most severely felt within the water sector.1 South Africa already places an excess demand on its water resources, with current water usage exceeding a reliable and sustainable yield. An increase in rainfall variability results in more frequent flooding and droughts, while the deteriorating quality of water resources adds further stress to the water system. Climate-related impacts are expected to aggravate these challenges as already experienced in some areas across the country.

In response, the South African government initiated a process, aligned with international efforts, to define its vision for effectively addressing the impacts of climate change. The process culminated in the National Climate Change Response White Paper2 (“Response White Paper”). It entrenches two broad objectives that thread throughout South Africa’s climate-related policies and strategies. The first objective is to manage climate change impacts effectively through interventions that build resilience and emergency response capacity. Secondly, South Africa aims to contribute fairly to the global effort to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions to a level that avoids anthropogenic interference with the climate system and enables sustainable development. Through mitigation and adaptation measures, government aims to transition to a climate-resilient, lower carbon economy and society. But this takes a substantial amount of planning.

Calculating the impact of climactic changes on water

Future impacts of climate change are scientifically calculated on a large scale using Global Circulation Models (“GCMs”). A number of GCMs exist, each projecting varying results. Once these projections are calculated, they are usually incorporated into water resource planning by using a top-down approach: global climate is projected to a smaller scale and change in water supply at a localised level is determined by applying hydrological modelling techniques.3 Only then are water systems tested to determine potential vulnerabilities. The uncertainty created by differing GCM outcomes is significantly increased by the downscaling process. This means that scenario-based approaches to water sector strategies are important. An alternative is using a bottom-up approach which first identifies and understands key vulnerabilities in the water system to determine the potential limits to a system’s adaptive capacity. While this approach is gaining some traction internationally, it has not yet been used on a large scale in South Africa.

Projected changes to South Africa’s climate

Current modelling suggests the changes to South Africa’s temperature and rainfall outlooks:



Projected Climate Changes


  • Under low mitigation: temperatures to increase drastically.
  • 2080-2099 period: Temperature increases greater than 4°C across South Africa. Increases greater than 6°C possible in western, central and northern interior.
  • Increases in the number of heat-wave days and very hot days.
  • Under high mitigation: temperatures in the interior could be limited to between 2.5 to 4°C.


More uncertainty in rainfall projections than in temperature projections.

Under low mitigation:

  • South Africa to experience drier conditions overall.
  • Extreme rainfall events to increase over the interior.

Under high mitigation:

  • Different projections.
  • A large number of projections predict generally wetter conditions over the central and eastern interior.
  • Other projections predict generally drier conditions.

Table: A summary of the projected future changes in climate in South Africa (Source: Draft National Adaptation Strategy, 2019)

Temperature projections are clear: South Africa’s temperatures will rise, the extent of which will depend on the successes or failures of global mitigation strategies. Greater uncertainty exists when it comes to rainfall variability and seasonality change. This makes planning for possible water futures more complex, particularly given current strategic planning already has to take erratic and variable rainfall patterns into account.

The projected impacts of climate change will require the water sector to focus more on its adaptation responses. But national mitigation responses may also have implications for the sector.

Adaptation strategies: Reducing vulnerability and enhancing resilience

Adaptation: The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects.”4

Given uncertainty about the impact of projected changes to climate, South Africa has opted for a scenario-based approach to explore adaptation options generally, and within vulnerable sectors, including water.5 Each scenario provides a set of appropriate adaptation responses.

South Africa has identified three fundamental climate scenarios:

  1. A warmer and drier climate (temperature increase of less than 3°C and reduced rainfall)
  2. A warmer and wetter climate (temperature increase of less than 3°C and increased rainfall)
  3. A hotter climate (temperature increase of more than 3°C)

The water sector is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Government has recognised this, and in 2013 initiated a programme to determine the long-term adaptation scenarios for vulnerable sectors, one of which was the water sector.6 The programme detailed the implications of climate change on the water sector and set out three broad response options. First, integrating adaptation into the water resources planning framework; secondly, incorporating climate change into reconciliation studies; and lastly, including adaptation priority measures in the draft climate change adaptation strategy for the water sector.

More generally, the Draft National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, published in May 2019, sets out South Africa’s primary draft adaptation plan in fulfilment of its international obligations. The plan is strategically driven by four key objectives:

  1. to build climate resilience and adaptive capacity to respond to climate change risk and vulnerability;
  2. to promote the integration of climate change adaption response into development objectives, policy, planning and implementation;
  3. to improve understanding of climate change impacts and capacity to respond to these impacts; and
  4. to ensure resources and systems are in place to enable implementation of climate change responses.

These objectives are linked to interventions, outcomes and actions.

Mitigation strategies: Transitioning to a lower carbon economy

Mitigation: A human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) [and] also assesses human interventions to reduce the sources of other substances which may contribute directly or indirectly to limiting climate change.”7

Largely because of its heavy reliance on coal-fired fuel and power stations, South Africa is the 14th largest global emitter carbon dioxide, releasing 9.0 metric tons per capita by 2014.8 In the global arena South Africa has pledged to peak its national emissions by 2025, plateau for approximately a decade, and decline in absolute terms thereafter.9 It is important therefore to ensure mitigation instruments are established to reduce emissions.

Within this context, the Response White Paper highlights two aspects that primarily inform South Africa’s mitigation strategy: its contribution to international efforts to limit global emissions while effectively managing its development and poverty alleviation agenda. It identifies key elements to be included in the mitigation mix but the process of developing tangible legislative and policy instruments for mitigation has been slow.

In 2015, Cabinet approved South Africa’s climate change mitigation system framework which consists of interrelated measures to reduce GHG emissions. The system is introduced in two phases. Phase 1, running from 2016 to 2020, is voluntary with no legal obligation to reduce emissions. The key outcome is to establish a system to inform the sector-specific planning and investment necessary to reduce their carbon footprint. Phase 2 – set to commence in 2020 – will only be mandatory when climate change response legislation has been enacted. The mitigation system includes key mechanisms that work together to reduce GHG emissions.

  1. Desired emission reduction outcomes (“DEROs”). The objective is to set GHG reduction targets for key sectors. These reduction outcomes will be used in other mechanisms like carbon budgets and mitigation plans.
  2. Carbon budgets. South Africa has its own carbon budget within the global climate change response context. It refers to the quantity of emissions that may be emitted over a specified period. To maintain its global carbon budget, the White Paper includes a national carbon budgets approach for sectors (which have not yet been defined) that is consistent with the national emissions range trajectory. Allocating carbon budgets has not yet been implemented, but provision for it has been included in the Draft Climate Change Bill, 2018.10
  3. Mitigation plans. Requiring companies and sectors which have established DEROs to prepare and submit mitigation plans that outline how their intended DEROs will be achieved forms an integral part of the mitigation mix. In 2017, six greenhouse gases were declared “priority pollutants” in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act11 (“NEM:AQA”) which requires, under defined circumstances and targets, the submission of a pollution prevention plan to the Minister of Environmental Affairs for approval.12 These plans detail the mitigation actions that a company plans to implement for it to keep its emissions within the allocated carbon budget.
  4. Market-based mechanisms. The strategy includes setting up a range of economic instruments to support the DEROs system, including pricing of carbon and economic incentives, and emissions offsets or emission reduction trading mechanisms for identified sectors. The Carbon Tax Act,13 which has been effective from 1 June 2019, imposes taxes on certain activities that are conducted above the threshold for those activities. Carbon taxes will be aligned to climate budgets.
  5. Monitoring and evaluation. In 2017, regulations were published introducing a mandatory national reporting system for identified categories of GHG emitters to update and maintain the National GHG Inventory, allow South Africa to meet its international reporting obligations and inform legislation and policy.14 Reporting is completed on the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory System (NAEIS), a web-based platform.

While the mitigation potential in the water sector is relatively small, adaptation measures such as desalination may have mitigation implication through their energy demands.

Planning amidst uncertainty

Some studies have noted that South Africa’s air temperatures have increased by 50 percent more than the global annual average of 0.65°C over the last five decades.15 This suggests that if global temperatures continue to rise, South Africa could experience far greater increases in temperature than the global average. A comprehensive response is required, both to mitigate and adapt to changes in climate, particularly in the water sector. To date, the transition of South Africa to a more resilient, lower-carbon economy and society has been slow as most adaptation and mitigation mechanisms have yet to be formally put in place. Some progress has been made recently with the publication of the Carbon Tax Act, the Draft Climate Change Bill, the NEM:AQA declaration of GHGs and the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. But more needs to be done within the water sector as a particularly climate-vulnerable sector. Angelic legislation by itself does not exempt South Africa from dealing with the devil in the implementation detail.

Within this framework, planning capacity will be a key capability for effectively adapting. The principal tool for water resource system planning is reconciliation studies: assessments of future requirements of water and how these can be reconciled with the available sources. But specific provisions for climate change are not yet included in most water resource reconciliation studies in South Africa.16 The water sector has the capacity to start managing the uncertainty created by climate change through incorporating climate change considerations in its reconciliation studies. This should be complemented with a sector-specific national adaptation strategy focusing on water resources.


Michelle Toxopeüs

Legal Researcher

1 DWS, 2013, National Water Resources Strategy II.

2 DEA, 2011, National Climate Change Response White Paper, accessed at

3 DEA, 2013, Long-Term Adaptation Scenarios Flagship Research Programme (LTAS) for South Africa: Implications for the Water Sector in South Africa, accessed at

4 IPCC, 2014: Annex II: Glossary in: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p 117-130.

6 Above note 3.

7 Above note 4.

8 World Bank, 2014, Co2 emissions (metric tons per capita, accessed at

9 UNFCCC, 2015, South Africa’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, accessed at

10 Section 13 of the Draft Climate Change Bill, 2018.

11 39 of 2004.

12 GN 710 of GG No. 40996, 21 July 2017.

13 15 of 2019.

14 GN 275 of GG No. 40762, 3 April 2017.

15 Above note 5.

16 Above note 3.