Cape Town - With climate change being the fastest growing threat, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has revealed that the number of natural World Heritage sites threatened by climate change has grown significantly in just three years.
According to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2 report, the number has doubled from 35 to 62 and climate change impacts, such as coral bleaching and glacier loss, have affected a quarter of all sites, compared to one in seven sites in 2014, and place coral reefs and glaciers among the most threatened ecosystems.
Other ecosystems, such as wetlands, low-lying deltas, permafrost and fire-sensitive ecosystems have also been affected.
The report warns that the number of natural World Heritage sites affected by climate change is likely to grow further, as climate change remains the biggest potential threat to natural world heritage, says IUCN.
“Protection of World Heritage sites is an international responsibility of the same governments that have signed up to the Paris Agreement,” says Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General. “This IUCN report sends a clear message to the delegates gathered here in Bonn: climate change acts fast and is not sparing the finest treasures of our planet. The scale and the pace at which it is damaging our natural heritage underline the need for urgent and ambitious national commitments and actions to implement the Paris Agreement.”
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), participating in CoP23 international climate change talks in Germany, climate change is already a measurable reality posing significant social, economic and environmental risks and challenges globally.
DEA reports that like many other developing countries, South Africa is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as such, the country has the task of balancing the acceleration of economic growth and transformation with the sustainable use of environmental resources and responding to climate change.
SEE: SA participates in CoP23 international climate change talks in Germany
While South Africa is said to be warming faster than the global average trend, according to the United Nations, this is a sign of man-made climate change that is aggravating "extraordinary weather" such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods.
The DEA says that water is the primary medium through which the impacts of climate change are being felt in South Africa.
"Increases in climate variability and climatic extremes are impacting both water quality and availability through changes in rainfall patterns, with more intense storms, floods and droughts, changes in soil moisture and runoff, and the effects of increasing evaporation and changing temperatures on aquatic systems," says DEA. "South Africa has been experiencing a serious drought since 2015, with associated crop losses, water restrictions, and impacts on food and water security."
SEE: Weather Service: SA warming faster than the global average trend
Added to this, DEA says climate change action presents a clear path towards the shared aim of a healthier, more prosperous and more secure future.
"South Africa has the task of balancing the acceleration of economic growth and transformation with the sustainable use of environmental resources and responding to climate change," says DEA.
"The very policies and actions that must deal with climate change also offer the most effective, readily achievable set of responses to enable sustained economic growth and social upliftment."
But what are the concerns when it comes to SA's 9 World Heritage Sites?
In the report, three of South Africa's natural World Heritages, namely the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Maloti-Drakensberg Park in Lesotho and the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas have been listed as good with some concern sites.
(Picture: IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2)
(Picture: IUCN World Heritage Outlook 2)
Bleached reefs, retreating glaciers
Globally the outlooks is not as promising. IUCN says World Heritage-listed coral reefs, such as the Aldabra Atoll and the Great Barrier Reef have been affected by devastating mass coral bleaching events over the last three years, due to rising sea temperatures.
According to IUCN, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered widespread bleaching, with up to 85% of surveyed reefs impacted in 2016.
Retreating glaciers, also resulting from rising temperatures, threaten sites such as Kilimanjaro National Park – which boasts Africa’s highest peak – and the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch – home to the largest Alpine glacier.
SEE: WATCH: What would happen to SA if all the world's ice melted
“Natural World Heritage sites play a crucial role supporting local economies and livelihoods,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme.
“Their destruction can thus have devastating consequences that go beyond their exceptional beauty and natural value. In Peru’s Huascarán National Park, for example, melting glaciers affect water supplies and contaminate water and soil due to the release of heavy metals previously trapped under ice. This adds to the urgency of our challenge to protect these places.”
While the broader findings of the report show further challenges to World Heritage such as invasive species, unsustainable tourism or infrastructure development, IUCN says the report also finds that 29% of World Heritage sites face significant concerns and 7%, including the Everglades National Park in the US and Lake Turkana in Kenya, have a critical outlook.
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