The rising tide: Youth brace against climate shocks

Communal toilets outside Anelisa Mgedezi’s house in Khayelitsha, Cape Town). (Photo: Newton Stanford)

They might live in seemingly different worlds, but Yola Mgogwana (14) and Anelisa Mgedezi (14) have much in common with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (19).

They are frustrated and anxious, but determined to create a different climate future to the one their generation is inheriting. These are ties that bind and unite young climate activists across the globe.

Children bear the greatest burden of climate change. Not only are they more vulnerable than adults to extreme weather and its health effects, their world is becoming a more dangerous place to live.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Northern Cape drought takes its toll on young people’s mental health

Our planetary house is on fire, an unblinking Thunberg (then 16 years old) told world leaders in Davos in 2019. While she was raising her voice on the global stage, promoting school strikes against climate inaction, and igniting a mass movement in the process, Yola and Anelisa were starting to find their voices as activists.

Yola attended her first global climate march at the age of 11 outside Parliament in Cape Town, delivering a speech about the need for climate justice to about 2,000 fellow pupils.

Today, she and Anelisa regularly speak out on issues that directly affect our planet – their own neighbourhood in particular – at a tipping point in climate history.

They understand that their voices have to travel far in the face of so much climate inaction in many sectors of society.

The alley Yola Mgogwana (14) uses to plant vegetables like cabbage and spinach for her family. It is at the back of her family’s house in Khayelitsha and offers limited space to garden. (Photo: Newton Stanford)

With regards to their prospects, both express a deep sense of institutional betrayal by adults, the government and institutions.

“Yes, I do get angry because, like, the situations that we are facing, we shouldn’t be facing,” says Anelisa, sporting a Garfield T-shirt, ripped jeans and a new hair braid style. “We should be living our lives, yet we are fighting for climate justice. And still, the government is in denial about the issue.”

The unfolding crisis of climate inaction

The science is clear: To avoid the dangerous climate change thresholds beyond which our planet will become far less inhabitable, we need to reduce global human-caused carbon dioxide emissions by almost half (45%) by 2030 and to almost zero by 2050.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent landmark assessment of climate risks and our ability to adapt to them, many of the effects of global warming are now simply irreversible. The report, a doorstop of a document at almost 3,700 pages, provides evidence clearly supporting claims of climate-related losses and damage. It shows, in no uncertain terms, that the state of the planet is worse than we thought.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Mother of asthmatic children fights for air in dirty shadow of coal power stations

While the report issues a dire warning about the consequences of inaction, it also highlights that timely adaptation responses in cities linked to climate-resilient development may offer hope in this unfolding crisis. However, the scientists warn of growing maladaptation problems in cities, saying that some response interventions might backfire on communities if not appropriately considered.

The communal tap outside Anelisa Mgedezi’s house in Khayelitsha. The family shares it with 55 other families. (Photo: Newton Stanford)

Experts say there is still a tiny window of opportunity to ensure inhabitable spaces in which to survive, thrive even. But this window is closing fast.

“We can see our world is burning,” says Anelisa. “It is shutting down because of climate change.”

Both girls are involved in a court case to stop the South African government from expanding its coal fleet in Mpumalanga with another 1,500MW power station. Their interest is spurred by the direct links between coal-fired power stations, climate change, and its effects on their daily lives. The world’s climate is changing due to human actions, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.

The #CancelCoal case is being brought by the African Climate AllianceVukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, and groundWork. These organisations, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), argue that plans to develop new coal plants threaten the environmental rights of present and future generations, their rights to life, dignity and equality, as well as children’s best interests.

Yola believes it is time for a just energy transition and climate justice for her generation. “I would like to see a future where there are no fossil fuels and we have switched to renewable energy.”

A room without a view

Yola and Anelisa live in Site B in Khayelitsha – a part of Cape Town that postcards and glossy lifestyle magazines don’t advertise. Here, many children are raised without access to basic social and health services, amid wide-reaching structural inequalities. Together, these factors are known to increase mental health risks.

Khayelitsha is vibrant and growing, but also underresourced and overpopulated. It faces many urban planning and delivery challenges, including water supply and pollution issues.

Socioeconomic vulnerability is high due to low levels of adaptive capacity in many local communities. This is exacerbated by poverty, unemployment and the legacy of apartheid-era planning decisions.

In this sprawling township, climate shocks are already multiplying the prevailing socioeconomic challenges, including access to safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.

Anelisa Mgedezi (14), a young climate activist from Khayelitsha in Cape Town. (Photo: Newton Stanford)

Khayelitsha is also missing green lungs and safe open spaces. Labyrinthine streets and alleys hold only irregular patches of greenery. It is in this space that many young climate and social activists are budding.

Anelisa lives with her mom (37) and three cousins in a two-bedroom house. Built with corrugated iron and cardboard sheets, it is opposite a blue spaza shop that sells items such as maize meal pap, cigarettes and toiletries.

Their front door opens onto a communal tap shared by 55 families, and a row of seven public toilets in concrete shells. This is a bustling space, an unlikely community hub, and a direct access point to water and sanitation services in a resource-constrained world.

On this summer afternoon, a group of barefooted boys is playing on the pavement and sharing two orange ice lollies.

The toilets are overflowing today, causing a steady trickle of raw sewage into a pothole in the street.

“In summer, we are suffocating from this air,” Anelisa says. “It is like we are breathing in sewage.”

During heatwaves their house sometimes becomes almost unbearable to live in, she says. Its corrugated metal roof locks the heat inside, turning their home into a tiny broiling oven from which there is seemingly no escape. The heat envelops you like clingwrap, she says. You can’t escape it.

Anelisa’s family moved from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town a few years ago in search of a better life. “After my great-granny who took care of me died, we moved to Cape Town,” she says. “It took my mom almost three years to find a job. It was really hard.” Her mom, Lindeka, is now a seasonal worker on a strawberry farm near Stellenbosch. Her salary, in addition to her three children’s social grants, is what keeps this family afloat.

Financially, things were especially tricky during the Covid-19 pandemic. They soon had to reduce the size and frequency of their meals. Sometimes they went to bed hungry or had only one meal per day. At other times, when they ran out of food and had no money for more, they relied on the spinach and cabbage in Anelisa’s home garden to fill their plates.

Anelisa loves gardening but has only a slither of sandy soil available for planting in the alley next to their house. Unfortunately, this space is often overrun by local gangsters who use it as a hideout or getaway route, trampling her seedlings. During drought or school exams, she finds it hard to nurture her plants or simply keep them alive. Khayelitsha’s sandy soil contains few nutrients, and she cannot always afford water for the plants amid regular water cuts.

The weight of water

Anelisa and her family have had to rebuild their home twice to hold back the Cape’s notorious storms.

When it rains, she says, she often becomes distraught. “It all started the first time our house was flooded in 2017. When the floods came, our house was already leaking. The rain was coming through the roof, and we had to place buckets everywhere.

“We had to move things around all night, and I was so stressed. I was worried about my school books and my personal documentaries getting wet. The rain was so heavy.

“That year, my family had to pack up our things twice, on separate occasions. […] We had to buy new building material.

“It is overwhelming to a child. And it was devastating and upsetting that I had to go through that twice. I often think to myself: Do we have to go through the same situation again?

But it is not only storm spells that have caused disruptions in Anelisa’s life in recent years. She is by now also very familiar with other climate shock events, especially after an extreme drought between 2015 and 2018 risked Cape Town’s taps running dry.

Anelisa recalls: “In 2018, there was a severe drought here. So, we stored water in buckets and skipped on washing. We were so scared that our water would run out.”

Climate activist Yola Mgogwana (14). (Photo: Newton Stanford)

During the drought, they experienced water cuts, often going without running water for days. “We had to walk a long way to queue for water or to buy water, which was expensive. So, we allowed ourselves only one glass of drinking water a day.

“After water cuts, the water becomes brown and it has to be boiled. But if you don’t have any electricity and no money to buy electricity, you drink the water.

“I think drinking this dirty tap water is what gave me cholera. I then had to choose between going to school and going to the clinic. We waited for a long time at the clinic because there were many people. Two of my cousins also contracted cholera at the time.”

Fighting for the right to water

The drought also caused anguish for Yola and her family. She lives with her grandmother, aunt, two uncles and three cousins, just a couple of blocks away from her friend Anelisa. Her grandmother supports them all financially as a domestic worker.

Their two-room house is sandwiched between other dwellings, with less than 40cm of sand between them and no shade. Scraps of old carpet are used to line these narrow alleys, an informal “pavement” that helps bind the shifting sand.

Yola says the drought was distressing to her. “I was only 11 years old at the time but remember it vividly.

“Many people, including us, had to compromise between buying food and buying water. During the drought, we once went three days without water. We had to approach other communities for water until the third day when a truck arrived with the water for our community to fill our buckets.

“One day, there were people of all ages standing in a very long queue. While we were waiting, a fight broke out between two men. They fought because one accused the other of being greedy because he was filling too many buckets.”

The brawl turned violent and bloody, she recalls. “It made me sad and scared to see adults fighting over water.” Yola says they tried to report the incident to the police, but nothing really came of it.

The drought was followed by several incidents of flooding in the area, which caused more emotional distress.

During storms, Yola says, the wind and rain beating on their corrugated roof often keeps her awake at night. The roof has many holes, so the sound of dripping is constant. “I don’t sleep well when it rains like that.”

Their house has begun to sink slowly into the sand. The floor is now submerged below the level of the alley outside, causing water to gush into their living space during heavy rains. In winter, freezing water often dams up to knee level inside their home.

This tap, near Yola Mgogwana’s house in Khayelitsha, is shared by 55 families. (Photo: Newton Stanford)

Yola says they no longer bother to put bricks underneath their furniture to protect it from rising water – the damage has already been done.

“Floods have also affected my school life,” Yola says. “I distinctly recall having to miss one of my mathematics exams because I was up late at night trying to help prevent flood damage instead of studying. I have tried to explain this situation to my teachers, but I don’t think they always understand.”

She now feels a familiar surge of anxiety when storm clouds appear on the horizon.

“People often get excited about rain, but I get worried. So when it rains, I sit at school and wonder what my house will look like when I get home.”

Flooding has long been a challenge for many residents of Cape Town. Yola says: “When our home gets flooded, we cannot leave because we have nowhere else to go.

“I have asthma, which means I have a weak immune system. There was a time when I had to be rushed to the hospital because of an asthma attack. I think it came after I caught the flu as a result of being wet and exposed to the cold weather.”

The future as it stands

While climatic challenges have always existed, the scientific consensus is that climate change is a “threat multiplier”, increasing the likelihood and severity of extreme weather events. For example, the 2015-18 drought in the Western Cape was three times more likely to occur because of the human influence on climate change.

Natural disasters occurred more frequently in the past 20 years than in the 1990s. Moreover, in the past several decades, warming in the southern African interior has occurred at about twice the average rate of global warming.

Researchers foresee intensifying dry seasons and droughts in many parts of the country, including cities like Cape Town, which narrowly avoided a “Day Zero” scenario where the taps could have run dry for its urban dwellers.

The recent IPCC report, for instance, shows that climate change added to the city’s water woes during the multiyear drought. The frontal systems that bring South Africa its winter rainfall seem to be shifting towards the South Pole as the planet warms, making the city progressively more vulnerable to drought.

“The relevance for us is that the cold front that is so important for our winter rainfall will find it increasingly difficult to reach the southern parts of South Africa in a warmer world,” says Francois Engelbrecht, a distinguished climatology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute. These and other climate-related changes are outlined in a report, submitted as part of the #CancelCoal court papers, that Engelbrecht co-authored for the CER.

The risk of multiyear droughts in Cape Town has already increased by a factor of three due to climate change, and will increase further as global warming intensifies.

The climatic changes the city is facing include a significant decrease in mean annual rainfall, changed seasonality of rainfall, an increase in mean annual temperatures and maximum temperatures, and an increase in heatwaves (32°C or hotter for three or more days in a row) and high-heat days (35°C or hotter).

Citizens are already experiencing more high-heat days and more frequent and intense heatwaves. Moreover, rising temperatures during heatwaves fuel shack fires, considered a severe risk in many informal settlements in and around Cape Town.

Climate vulnerability and multiplied traumas

The pandemic and the unprecedented climate dangers that children and young people are subjected to are highlighted in research by a WHO-Unicef-Lancet commission, “A future for the world’s children?” Among other things, it measured how well children flourish today, and how countries’ greenhouse gas emissions are affecting their future.

Scientists express particular concern about the impacts of “cascading” climate-related threats on those already exposed to multiple socioeconomic stressors.

“A threat multiplier like climate change may be the final stressor that really completely destroys a person or a family, causing huge distress and change on the continuum of wellbeing,” says Professor Mark Tomlinson of the Institute for Life Course Health Research in Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The same social conditions that make most South Africans vulnerable to climate change can also have adverse psychological and mental health implications, says Dr Garret Barnwell, a clinical psychologist and community psychology practitioner. He recently produced a specialist report on the mental health effects of climate change. The report was commissioned by the CER on behalf of the same organisations involved in the #CancelCoal case.

Poverty, unemployment and inadequate housing are some of the common social determinants of mental disorders, he says.

In this context, climate change will likely lead to more severe and complex mental health conditions as climate change stressors and traumas accumulate throughout people’s lives. “In our country, mental health issues cannot be separated from issues related to social wellbeing, given the country’s complex history and structural challenges,” Barnwell says.

“We know with climate change that it’s probably not going to be one event that young people are exposed to. Simply because of how our society is structured, people are exposed to multiple traumas.”

Barnwell says this presents particular challenges to South Africa’s health-focused adaptation response to climate change. The chronic underfunding for dealing with mental health issues among young people is well known, and its effects have been underlined during the pandemic.

Many young people say they experience a sense of betrayal which contributes to secondary traumas, he says. “It all relates to the sins of those that have the power to protect us – the sins of not taking proportional action, or delaying action. So many kids are feeling betrayed by the adult world for not taking enough action on climate change.”

To adapt to the planetary changes already under way it is vital that we address urban planning issues to curb flooding, and deal with the health impacts of climate-related events in our cityscapes. In this, localised adaptation responses and grassroots activists can play a pivotal role, adds Dr Debra Roberts, co-chair of the working group responsible for the IPCC’s recent report. She heads up city resilience efforts for Durban’s eThekwini Municipality.

The kids aren’t alright

Yola says she is often concerned about her future and has feelings of worry, nervousness or unease about anything with an uncertain outcome. Sometimes she has “feelings of depression”, although “she is fighting it”.

“I feel that the government has stolen my future away from me because they are in denial of the climate crisis while people are suffering from the impacts of climate change.”

Anelisa adds: “The grown-ups are not listening. They are in denial about the (climate change) issue. And as teenagers, we are speaking more about climate change because it’s affecting us. It’s affecting our rights.

“The older generation will die, and we’ll be the ones living in the broken world.”

By adding their voices to a global movement, these two teenagers are at least no longer alone in their plight.

“We have to act now,” Anelisa says. “But we also have to go to school. We are teenagers. We should be playing, going to school, not worrying about the future, not worrying about when we will experience drought, and when we will experience heavy rains.

“We are children taking action, but the older generation is in denial about the issue. They want to act when people are dying, yet marginalised communities are suffering. We’re already suffering. Why don’t they act now?” DM/MC/OBP

This reporting was supported by the Gender Justice Reporting Initiative of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The article was published on 18 April 2022 by Daily Maverick.

Related article: Northern Cape drought takes its toll on young people’s mental health

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