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25 November 2011

Challenges of climate change and the important role of the sea

EARLIER this week President Jacob Zuma told a business breakfast that the phenomenon of climatic change has created a challenge as a result of which countries face the challenge of having to grow their economies to alleviate poverty while ensuring that global warming does not reach dangerous levels.

Zuma said negotiators at the COP17 conference are faced with the challenge of creating a balance between the needs of the millions "whose lives depend on the conference outcome and maintaining environmental integrity and low-level carbon emissions".

He said developing countries, like South Africa, needed to develop new technologies that would meet their citizenry's basic needs with minimal carbon emissions.

Last week a group of scientists, including oceanographers, marine biologists, and meteorologists invited a media contingent on board the SA Aguhlas - a research vessel that has for the past 30 years been servicing three South African National Antarctic Programme bases - Gough Island, Marion Island in the Southern Ocean and Sanae IV in Antarctica.

The Southern Ocean (also known as the Great Southern Ocean, the Antarctic Ocean, and the South Polar Ocean) comprises the Southernmost waters of the World Ocean. This includes the area below the Southern tip of South Africa where Prince Edward Islands and Marion Islands are located.

SA Aghulas is owned by the Department of Environmental Affairs. A new and better-equipped vessel is to replace SA Algulhas next year.

The vessel was on a five-day voyage to Durban as a build-up to the COP17 conference in the city.

The voyage's objective was, among other things, to create awareness of the role of oceans in regulating the effect of climate change.

The voyage was also used to train the youth involved in the fields of marine biology, oceanography and meteorology in how to conduct scientific research and testing of equipment used at the various research bases.

Highlighting the importance of research in Antarctica and the Southern Oceans, Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi said the areas had been identified as an important "carbon sink" where most of the carbon dioxide emission in the atmosphere was absorbed.

Professor Geoff Brundrit of the department of environmental affairs, oceans and coasts pointed out that 25% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean.

Brundrit indicated that the concern was that climate change is impacting on the ocean's capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - thereby exacerbating global warming.

The scientists also agreed that the people's ability to adapt to climate change was linked to their socioeconomic conditions.

"If you are poor your adaptability to the extreme weather phenomena like storms and draught are compromised," argued head of the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (Access) Neville Swade.

South African Weather Services' (SAWS) Linda Makuleni said research had revealed the link between floods after lengthy drought and the outbreak of water-borne disease like cholera.

"Research shows that there are disease carrying bugs that remain buried in the ground during drought. These are then swept into rivers during floods causing water-borne diseases like cholera. This will obviously impact more on communities that do not have access to clean water," she explained.

Makuleni said by identifying this potentially dire situation SAWS could then warn health authorities about the potential for cholera outbreaks in such communities.

The scientists also agreed with Zuma's contention that a major challenge remains growing the economy and alleviating poverty.

They said exploring ways of adapting to climate change could create opportunities for South Africa to develop new technology that could lead to the development of certain economic sectors.

Pointing out this potential chief scientist Pedro Monteiro said South Africa must, for example, maximise the manufacturing of solar geysers.

Instead of continuing to import the technology for these geysers, South Africa could engage in intense research that would enable the country to manufacture the geysers locally.

"This will help build the manufacturing sector and creating the much needed jobs - while dealing with the issue of our dependency on coal-driven electricity," said Monteiro.

Explaining the key mission of the research bases in the Southern Ocean and the importance of SA Aguhlas, deputy director-general in the department of environmental affairs Monde Mayekiso said the area remained "an open laboratory and only the government has the infrastructure to utilise these facilities to the maximum benefit of South Africa and the rest of the African continent".

- The Sowetan