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South Africa: An Experiment in Climate Change Adaptation Planning

As South Africa moves forward with its own preparations for climate change, other countries are taking note.

As African leaders and climate negotiators flock to Copenhagen’s COP15 meeting in December, many will look to South Africa for guidance. With a historically progressive climate policy, South Africa’s leadership in international climate negotiations has helped to unite the “Africa Group” in seeking support from industrialized nations in order to address climate change. However, South Africa has chosen to move forward on adaptation – the process of preparing for changes in the environment – even before that finance materializes. The country’s alternative adaptation experiment may yield fruitful insights into how nations can achieve climate resilience without solely depending on external assistance.

Building on Existing Strengths

South Africa’s adaptation strategy outlines the nation’s key social and ecological vulnerabilities, climate projections, and basic adaptation needs. The National Climate Change Response Strategy and Framework for Sustainable Development both provide a roadmap for how South Africa will react to and address climate change and other sustainable development challenges in the future.

South Africa’s adaptation strategy makes use of the country’s existing capacities and resources, setting it apart from adaptation strategies that depend on outside assistance. By pursuing an alternative to the traditional adaptation financing model, South Africa can avoid the many conditions that often come with assistance from international donor organizations. South African policymakers can draft their own policies, pursue strategies specific to their own circumstances, and create ownership over their process.

South Africa’s adaptation strategy makes use of the country’s existing capacities and resources, setting it apart from strategies that depend on outside assistance.

Even though South African society faces many stressors (such as high HIV/AIDS infection rates), the country enjoys a comparative wealth of natural and human resources. The country also has a strong and influential scientific and academic tradition, which has played a pivotal role in developing climate models, weather projections, and other ecological information that is then integrated into policy. Under the leadership of former environment minister Martinus Van Schalkwyk (2004-2009), South Africa built bridges within the G77 and developed a strong domestic climate agenda.

Addressing Capacity Gaps

Even with its strong policymaking and science research capacity, adaptation planning in South Africa has been hindered by deficient coordination and social capacities. Integrating climate concerns and adaptation with national development priorities can be difficult in practice. Climate programs currently do not directly address basic human development needs such as AIDS prevention, employment, health care, and housing.


The idea of integrating climate projections with developmental policy in South Africa is still in its nascent stages. Although the higher echelons of government recognize the dangers of not adapting to climate change, many provincial and local level authorities have yet to realize its importance. Agricultural policies in agrarian provinces such as Northern Cape and Limpopo have yet to fully understand, or even incorporate, climate projections and its corresponding economic development needs in policy-drafting and formation.


The government also has difficulty communicating climate information to civil society. The national climate agenda, based on the stance of the nation’s international climate negotiators, is developed through the National Climate Change Committee (NCCC). The NCCC is supposed to share climate information amongst government and non-governmental actors. In practice, however, little effort is put into information sharing with the broader society as a whole. The NCCC’s quarterly meetings have strayed from their original intent, and most time is now spent on feedback events from international negotiations rather than consultation or discussion amongst agencies and stakeholders. In addition, attendance and participation within the NCCC is not consistent, leading to frequent gaps and inconsistencies in the Committee’s policy recommendations.

Public Support

South Africa lacks broad awareness and public support for climate change adaptation, where poverty, social equality, access to basic infrastructure, and other challenges continue to dominate. Moreover, much of the general public lacks access to adequate education or other information sources. As a result, much of the government’s policy and plans may go unimplemented or sidetracked by more “pressing” policies that promote immediate economic benefits.

Prospects for South Africa’s Adaptation Planning Model

South Africa has a wealth of institutional and research capacities, but traditional planning problems, such as the lack of coordination and broad-based participation, remain. The country needs to reconcile these deficiencies by increasing both its accountability to the general public and the public’s ability to actively participate.

South Africa needs to increase both its accountability to the general public and the public’s ability to actively participate.

Nonetheless, South Africa’s adaptation planning experiment demonstrates that an emerging economy can make use of existing capacities to develop adaptation strategies that are uniquely tailored to specific national circumstances. Their experience so far indicates that countries may not need to rely solely on external assistance for adaptation projects. For the rest of Africa, the challenge is to develop similar capacities, and to build their own alternative mechanisms for adaptation planning to the existing donor-driven model.

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