Southern Africa in a “Climate Horror”

As the crucial COP21 climate talks get underway in Paris, veteran environmental journalist Fiona Macleod says people in rural parts of Southern Africa are living in a “climate horror,” with women being hit hardest. With drought affecting large swathes of the region, she says data plays a hugely important role in helping journalists tell the stories of those who are most vulnerable.

Southern Africa has made headlines in recent weeks thanks to the appalling drought that is gripping the region. But unfortunately, for one veteran environmental journalist, the scenes of dry cracked earth, spoiled crops and thirsty people broadcast on our television screens recently are far from new.

Fiona Macleod, of South Africa, recently visited the northern KwaZulu-Natal region, which she said has been parched for many years now. “People living in Southern Africa are living in a climate horror as they are experiencing the real effects of climate change first hand. The situation is becoming desperate — just days ago, a teenage boy was killed after a skirmish over access to water in a drying river bed.” she said.

Unicef reported in November that some 11 million children are at risk from hunger, disease and water shortages in East and Southern Africa because of the strengthening El Niňo phenomenon. Unicef says that efforts to protect populations from the impact of El Niňo need to be stepped up with particular attention paid to children. As women are the main caretakers of children, the burden of global warming weighs more heavily on their shoulders than any other part of society.

Fiona said: “In this part of the world, the rural areas are vast. Women living in these regions are often responsible for collecting water, providing firewood, washing and cooking. Climate change has a huge impact on them because they are now having to travel much further to fetch water and food. Women are the backbone of society in Southern Africa. They already had hard lives but climate change is making things much harder for them — if their lives are hard, so is everyone’s.”

The importance of data

As a fellow of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN), Fiona says data plays a hugely important role in helping her effectively tell the stories of those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Fiona and other EJN journalists are increasingly using new mapping and data visualisation tools to add context and richness to the articles and videos they produce, helping us as members of the public to develop a better understanding of how these people are coping.

But while Fiona has seen first-hand evidence of the hardships faced by women in Southern Africa due to climate change, she said many decision-makers are not aware of the need for policies to help those women who are most in need. “This is due to insufficient knowledge and data regarding the gender differentiated impacts of climate change,” she said.

This point is backed up by a 2014 Heinrich Böll Foundation report, which showed that women seemed to cope with the impacts of climate change better than men; they showed themselves to be “repositories of knowledge about crops and climate, the environment, natural resources and food preservation techniques.” However, the report highlights how this knowledge does not make women less vulnerable as they are “not typically empowered in policy making processes that in turn impact their operational capacity and ability.”

Furthermore, there is evidence that some of the coping mechanisms these women are employing are doing them more harm than good. The study says one of the alternative sources of income they are seeking out is beer brewing, which has led to increased levels of alcoholism and related violence.

The ClimaTracker platform

Recognising how evidence-based journalism can highlight the plight of vulnerable people in Southern Africa, Fiona founded the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Journalism. Set up three years ago, it prides itself on being Africa’s first journalistic investigation unit that focuses on environmental issues.

A computer shows the Oxpeckers mapping site

Oxpeckers has just launched a new mapping platform called ClimaTracker, funded by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN). This mobile and website mapping platform uses scientific data from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to track temperatures and rainfall since 1979 and predict how these will change up to 2099.

Fiona said: “The scientists at the council are really excited about this because although they’ve had access to this data, it’s not been accessible in the public domain until now. We’re taking all of their information and filtering it through a process that will create a user friendly interactive platform that normal people can understand. It’s a first for South Africa.”

Not only will ClimaTracker gather data that can be used to help journalists add context to their stories, it will also act as a tool for holding governments to account. Maybe then we will start to see the implementation of strategies and policies that will help people in Southern Africa who are most directly impacted by global warming.

Jennifer Cobb is Vice President for Communications and Outreach at Internews. Internews’ Earth Journalism Network is active at the Paris Climate Talks, with a contingent of 40 journalists, journalism fellows, and senior journalism mentors from around the world attending the talks, including Fiona Macleod. Follow Earth Journalism for more information and updates from #COP21.

(Banner photo: Water-hungry fever trees in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Credit: Fiona Macleod)

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)