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Climate change responses in urban low-income groups, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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South Africa is urbanising at an unsustainable rate such that the levels of urban poverty and inequality are rising, taking the country further from its attainment of the sustainable development goals, mainly, the elimination of poverty alleviation (Goal 1) and the reduction of inequalities (Goal 5). Climate change, which was voted the second greatest threat to national security in 2017, is exacerbating the situation, making it difficult for governments to juggle the demands of the increasing population with responses to climate-related impacts. Hence, urban low-income groups, due to the pre-existing high levels of poverty and inequality, lack the resources to respond to the current and future impacts of climate variability and change. They are disproportionally vulnerable and these impacts are not gender-neutral as gender inequalities and women’s socio-economic vulnerability contribute to their susceptibility to climate-induced impacts. Attempts are being made by the global community to address this ‘wicked problem’ via mitigation and adaptation measures, however, given the complexities and multi-scalar nature of the issues, the governance system is met with challenges. Central to addressing climate change are local governments who are at the forefront of vulnerability and are better positioned to design and implement climate change response strategies that minimise the impacts on local livelihoods and vulnerable communities. In light of this, the research investigates how low-income groups in the urban areas of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, and their local governments, are responding to the current and future impacts of changing climatic conditions. Pietermaritzburg is an inland city and the second largest urban centre in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, a province that has a high vulnerability to climate-related risks and a low adaptive capacity. In addition, the city is confronted with growing rates of urban poverty, unemployment and unequal development. Using a case study approach, a questionnaire survey was conducted within four socio-economically marginalised urban communities. The respondents identified eight climate stressors that negatively impact their lifestyles and livelihoods, however, they lacked the knowledge as to the causes of climate change and how to cope. As a consequence, less than half of the respondents had adopted coping strategies, many of which were stop-gap reactive-type measures that provide limited capacity to build resilience and response capacity. In-depth interviews were conducted with local governments responsible for the case study communities, to assess their responses to climate variability and change. The municipalities have adopted measures to institutionalise climate responses, however, they are relatively new and implementation is slow, complex and fraught with limitations and competing socio-economic demands. In view of these findings, it is argued that with South Africa’s rapid rate of urbanisation and the projected climate changes, there is an urgent need to create enabling conditions for the adoption of engendered, cost-effective, long-term and sustainable coping strategies that are responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups. Furthermore, local governments must transform their governance structures and enlarge their knowledge base by engaging non-state actors, including the citizens, non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, faith-based organisations, research institutions, and the private sector in the policy-making and implementation process. A transdisciplinary approach and a hybrid and inclusive governance are necessary to holistically address the combined impacts of climate change and rapid urbanisation. Moreover, the local government must increase investment in urban pro-poor climate change projects, which have, to some effect, been successful, and educate the communities on climate-related risks so as to increase their knowledge and response capabilities.


Doctor of Philosophy in Geography. University of KwaZulu-Natal. Pietermaritzburg, 2017.