Four years ago, researchers made the discovery that at least 17 million women and girls in Africa collect water every day. It was the first study to calculate exactly how many women and children were responsible for water collection in Africa and, additionally, how this laborious task increases their risk of sexual abuse, disease and dropping out of school.

Since then, the situation has stayed much the same. In fact, it could be getting worse. Due to factors like climate change, up to 2.4 billion people could be living in areas without enough water by 2025 – meaning women and girls will be forced to walk further, and under tougher circumstances, to water. As the distance increases, so does the risk of abuse, disease and the inability of many women to go to school or work.

When it comes to equality and unity in South Africa, few consider the impact climate change has on social cohesion. However, droughts, flooding or other extreme weather conditions are quick to surface inequalities. Poor and disadvantaged communities are often the first and longest to suffer, lacking both the means to prepare for, and recover from, extreme weather. 2019’s tornadoes in KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, impacted 15,000 people, mostly in rural communities, destroying 3,000 households and causing damages of over R500 million.

It’s becoming increasingly important to focus on the impacts of climate change, particularly the impact of droughts on equality. South Africa is in a vulnerable position when it comes to weather changes. The country has always been water scarce, receiving only half the global average of annual rainfall. This was significantly less between 2014 and 2016, which saw three consecutive years of drier conditions. Additionally, of the fresh water the country does have, as much as 40 percent of it is lost through poor planning, including decaying water infrastructure and unmaintained pipe systems. The reliability of water supplies is currently at its lowest since 1996.

In the 2020 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an intention to right this through R700 billion worth of infrastructure investments, including independent water production and municipal bulk infrastructure. It’s a positive step, but time will tell if it’s enough.

At current rates, it is estimated that by 2030, South Africa’s water demand will exceed supply by 17%, this imbalance is likely to see conflict over natural resources escalate and will also have implications on jobs and food security.

Agriculture, for example, accounts for between 70 – 90% of all freshwater withdrawals, meaning that during a drought, farm productivity and food security is jeopardised. During the 2016 / 2017 heatwave in the country, maize production dropped by over 55%, meaning that South Africa had to import maize for the first time in eight years, at a cost of R9.2 billion. The price for a 5kg bag of maize rose by 26%, four times the upper inflation limit. For the 14 million people living in extreme poverty in South Africa, who spend upwards of 34% of income on food, this increase was crippling. Additionally, Cape Town’s 2017 water crisis saw over 20,000 jobs in the agricultural sector lost. In total, the Western Cape drought lost an estimated R5 billion to the economy.

When it comes to tackling poverty, unemployment and inequality, climate change needs to have a seat at the table, especially in South Africa. This is something Indlulamithi helps to encourage. Our research places it as variable seven as a force most likely to impact social cohesion by 2030. Climate change needs attention in all areas – from improved weather forecasting to water resource management – to ensure minimal impact on South Africa’s poor.