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What's at state in Western Cape

The Fynbos Biodiversity Hotspot

Authors: Sarah Birch, Goosain Isaacs and Gerard van Weele, Climate Change Directorate, Department of Environment and Development Planning, Western Cape Government 

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At the southernmost tip of Africa, you will find the Cape Floral Region, Fynbos biome and its associated coastal and marine ecosystems. Here you will feast your eyes on Proteas, penguins, seahorses, and great white sharks to name a few. Incredible mountains, wetlands, estuaries and vista’s beckon to locals and tourists alike, forming a backbone to a massive tourism, nature-based and agricultural economy. This biodiversity hotspot is developing into a climate change hotspot too. 

The region falls within the ambit of the Western Cape Government, a provincial sphere of government in South Africa; the most disaster- prone province and particularly prone to the effects of climate-related hazards, which pose a risk to the economy, ecosystems and population.

The Western Cape faces a drying, warming trend that is fostering the conditions for increased fire intensity, droughts, and floods. These conditions have manifested in a once in a millennium drought (from 2015-2019) situation leading to the infamous “Day Zero” event that saw the taps come close to running dry for the City of Cape Town and numerous local authorities. There were significant economic impacts across the agriculture, tourism and many other sectors. The impacts also extended to the natural environment with fire fuel loads increasing and drying in this period, creating tinderbox situations resulting in Fire-Storm events in the Garden Route region in 2017 which caused huge devastation (with 22,000 hectares burnt) and superseded 2019 fires that burnt 86,000 hectares in 10 days. Recent fire storm conditions occurred in April 2021 with a devastating fire on Table Mountain.

We often talk about the economic and social impacts of climate change, without focusing on the fact that in many regions like the Western Cape, the backbones of these economies are built on natural resources from very delicately balanced ecosystems. These very ecosystems are iconic, irreplaceable and at risk; systems that we are completely intertwined within and dependent upon. More than 70% of the Cape Floral Region has already been lost to land use changes, and climate change impacts are additional stressors on these systems. Iconic species like Protea’s are at risk – also impacting on economic and livelihood ventures based on wildflower harvesting and exports. But lesser known species like Honey Bush which are harvested for tea, also support small industries and may be at risk due to increased fire frequencies. So many species have a story, a community, an industry, and a supply chain that may reach your part of the world. And at the location of these species rapid change is underway. 

We are in the Climate Decade with less than 10 years to shift the global economy away from fossil fuel use, and to prepare for the looming climatic changes. Developing country regions like the Western Cape, are feeling the drastic resource constraints that is hampering effective rapid and upscaled climate change response. 


Regional governments like the Western Cape have shown commitment to climate change response by signing the Under2 MOU and developing a 2050 Emissions Pathway. Climate change has been on the agenda for almost two decades with the region's first climate change plan developed in 2008. Huge strides have been made to understand the implications for the region and to shift many policies and practices, but the ground swell of multi sectoral action still needs to take place. 


We also know that there are huge benefits to adapting quickly and early, and one that can create opportunities. Research indicate that by investing in improved climate resilience, the Western Cape Economy could be 33% better-off in 2040 than if the province does not adapt to the impacts of climate change (Failure to invest could result in contraction of economy by 17%; whilst effective investment in climate resilience could boost provincial GDP by 15% above the no-adaptation baseline); furthermore that employment levels could increase by as much as 12% by 2040, if the province leads in adapting to climate change. This is the kind of news that is pivotal right now as the world figures out how to recover from the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.

The forecasts are clear and can already be seen in the impacts of the drought and fires. Unless massive scaled response is put in place in the next decade, the hard-won development gains to-date, and any other planned ones are at risk. Regions around the world want to implement green new deals but the developing world needs support to do this too. 


The Paris Agreement was an excellent starting point, providing hope to the world. Rapid action is required by all governments outlining how they are planning to meet their targets, and how they will include and collaborate with various spheres of government. Many of the solutions to limit global average temperature increase to no more than 1.5°C already exist and can be deployed by states and regions. Even in regions where we don’t have resources, we are leading the way, but the pace of change will overwhelm our resource bases rapidly.

In the Western Cape, our agriculture exports, tourism assets, small-scale industries based on natural resources are at stake. And our towns and cities are dealing with droughts, fires, and rapid change. 

This article was published as part of the Under2 Coalition and Regions4 #WhatsAtState campaign. Click here to find out more.