South Africa: Vulnerability assessment at District level

Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Namakwa District Municipality (NDM) in the Northern Cape of South Africa

The method

A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment is a method of assessing possible impacts of future climate change upon the people and the environment in a specific area. In this case the method was applied to the Namakwa District Municipality (NDM), which is located in the arid Northern Cape of South Africa. The vulnerability of the NDM’s biodiversity and ecology, its people and its institutions to climate change was assessed.

Scope and entry points

The ecological, socio-economic and institutional vulnerability indices produced through the assessment highlight areas where impacts may be the most severe and which are therefore important for decision making at the district level, e.g. for the setting of adaptation priorities in the NDM.

At higher levels, the Vulnerability Assessment also supports and is informed by the Northern Cape’s provincial climate change adaptation plan, and will also link to future Long Term Adaptation Scenarios currently being developed under the National Climate Change Response White Paper for South Africa.

How it works

The Vulnerability Assessment followed three data gathering steps:

  1. Projected climatic changes for the NDM were detailed (for temperature, rainfall, sea level, storm intensity, fog and CO2 concentration) based on existing data and downscaled statistical modelling for the area. Best and worst case scenarios were used as well as an intermediate scenario. The study used medium term data (for 2050), which is a compromise between the uncertainty of long term projections (2100) and the small changes estimated by shorter duration projections (e.g. 2020).
  2. The sensitivity of the NDM’s ecosystems and the Succulent Karoo biome to climate change was assessed through a review of existing studies. Impacts on the people of the area were also considered, with an emphasis on the existing challenges they are facing.
  3. The NDM’s ecological, socio-economic and institutional adaptive capacities were assessed through knowledge of the area, a desk study of current adaptation measures to climate change and other existing stresses, and through consultations with stakeholders and experts.

The above three steps produced data to estimate vulnerability indicators shown in table 1 on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 representing the lowest and 5 the highest vulnerability (for a detailed description of the indicators and their development see the full technical report under references).

For the NDM, the following results were obtained: an ecological vulnerability index of 3.85 (medium-high), a socio-economic vulnerability index of 3.8 (medium-high), and an institutional vulnerability index of 3.0 (medium), yielding an overall vulnerability index of 3.5 (medium-high). This figure allows for a comparison with other areas facing similar climate change impacts.

Based on information gathered in the assessment process, a map identifying priority areas for Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) was produced in consultation with the district officials and broader stakeholders to determine areas where EbA would be feasible and benefit the most vulnerable. EbA is the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. The next stage is to make recommendations for priority actions and the allocation of resources.

Specifics of application

  • Stakeholders and institutional set-up

The Vulnerability Assessment was carried out by a partnership of organizations led by Conservation South Africa, an affiliate of Conservation International. The other project partners were the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and Conservation International. Each organization provided different expertise. Conservation South Africa has been working in the NDM for 13 years and holds local biodiversity, ecosystem and socio-economic knowledge; SANBI’s climate change scientists are experts in their field and have focused much of their research on the NDM; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University provided expertise on spatial planning, mapping ecosystem resilience and EbA priority areas; and lastly Conservation International provided guidance in the Vulnerability Assessment method.

  • Input

The assessment took one year (part-time) to complete (including the production of communication materials). The method is resource intensive in that it requires climate models; yet if these models are available, the method is reasonably easy to use as long as there is support and leadership from the local community and municipality. In brief, the following resources were required:

– A committed and supportive stakeholder group, including municipality and local  community champions for the process

– Services of climate scientists and a spatial planner/GIS expert

– Climate models for temperature and rainfall (obtained from SANBI’s Climate System Analysis Group and the National CSIR)

– Good spatial data to inform climate sensitivity assessment e.g. landscape gradients, high biodiversity areas, poverty nodes, communal lands, settlements in wetlands or flood plains etc.

– Current or historical data on climate related disasters – droughts, floods, storms, preferably with a spatial dimension (the district was also doing disaster risk reduction planning at the time)

-Information on the state of the environment – threats, challenges, current land uses

– Socio-economic baseline data that is fairly site specific (e.g. demographics, levels of education, poverty etc).

– An understanding of local government structures, roles and responsibilities.

– A Project coordinator and support from CSA’s policy and communication teams, all part time on the project.

– Communications materials and workshop materials.

There was substantial support from partners and local government for the assessment and we were able to access all the information that we needed. The large distance that stakeholders and scientists needed to travel to attend the workshops was a challenge.

  • Output

The vulnerability assessment provided a collection of climate change projection maps for temperature and rainfall in the NDM (based on existing climate models) as well as a qualitative report on sensitivity and adaptive capacity including the described vulnerability indices.

  • Capacity required and ease of use

The vulnerability assessment was based on a significant pool of climate change data and modelling that had been previously carried out for the area. The assessment was also based on expert opinion and peer-reviewed papers on the sensitivity and adaptive capacity of the NDM to projected climatic changes. If these scientific resources are available, as in this case, then a lot of the information for the vulnerability assessment can be relatively easily collated in a desk study. If the scientific data and information is not already available, then it needs to be collected by climate change scientists, requiring expertise, funds and time. The stage of gathering information and scoring parameters for the vulnerability indices needs to be carried out in close collaboration with the municipality and local stakeholders which can be a time-consuming process.

Conclusions for future application

  • Outcome and added value

The vulnerability assessment provides an understanding and a comparable analysis of the NDM’s vulnerability to climate change. It is the foundation for making recommendations for priority actions and the allocation of resources to most effectively reduce vulnerability. The assessment is therefore essential in climate change adaptation decision-making at the local and district level, and also allows for measuring reduced vulnerability over time to see whether efforts by government and other stakeholders have been effective.

  • Cost-benefit ratio

The vulnerability assessment was a cost-effective method due to readily available information and connection to stakeholder workshops around disaster risk management which were already underway. However, if the climate change data had not been available, the project would have been significantly more expensive. It can be even more cost-effective where dedicated staff is already in place.

  • Potential for replication

The described vulnerability assessment method is applicable to a wide range of contexts, yet the vulnerability indicators may need to be modified if circumstances differ. The method does require a solid foundation of socio-economic and environmental information as well as climate data and scientific expertise. As more detailed information on the impacts of climate change is produced, such as the research programme of the Long Term Adaptation Scenarios[TL5]  being developed for South Africa currently, the method will become easier to replicate. A crucial feature of the method is its involvement of local stakeholders and connection to political processes, both of which need to be ensured for successful replication.


The full Technical Report Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for the Namakwa District Municipality is available online:

Please contact Amanda Bourne at for more information.

Method references:

Bartlett, R. S Freeman, J Cook, B Dongol, R Sherchan, M Shrestha, and P McCornick. 2011. Freshwater Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment: The Indrawati Sub-Basin, Nepal. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Report NI R 11-07.

R. Boquiren, G. Di Carlo, and M.C. Quibilan (Eds). 2010. Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Verde Island Passage, Philippines. Technical report. Conservation International, Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Davies, R.A.G., S.J.E. Midgley, and S Chesterman. One World Sustainable Investments. 2010. Risk and Vulnerability Mapping for Southern Africa: Status Quo (2008) and Future (2050). Draft Research Report for the Regional Climate Change Programme: Southern Africa, Department for International Development.

Larrea and G. Di Carlo (Eds). 2010. Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of the Galápagos Islands. WWF and Conservation International, USA.

Mohan, Divya, and Shirish Sinha. 2010. Vulnerability Assessment of People, Livelihoods, and Ecosystems in the Ganga Basin. Report, WWF-India

Other references that may be of interest are:

Department of Social Development. 2009. Possible Effects and Impact of Climate Change on Human Settlements and Population Development in the Northern Cape. DSD, Development and Research, Population Development, Kimberley

Hoffman, M.T., Carrick, P.J., Gillson, L., west, A.G. 2009. Drought, climate chance and vegetation response in the succulent karoo, South Africa. South Africa Journal of Science 105:54-60.

Midgley, GF., and W Thuiller. 2007. ‘Potential vulnerability of Namaqualand plant diversity to anthropogenic climate change’ in Journal of Arid nvironments:doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2006.11.020

Rutherford, MC, GF Midgley, WJ Bond, LW Powrie, R Roberts & J Allsopp. 2000 ‘Plant biodiversity: vulnerability and adaptation assessment’ in G. Kiker Climate change impacts in southern Africa. Report to the National Climate Change Committee, Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism, Pretoria, forming part of the South African Country Study on Climate Change which contributed to South Africa’s Initial National Communication to the UNFCCC.

Author: Conservation South Africa

Date: March 2013