The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has concluded its 5th biannual CSIR Conference in Pretoria with two equally worrying warnings from expert speakers: that Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and that most South African computer networks are inadequately protected from cyber attacks.

The conference began with a visit by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, accompanied by science minister Naledi Pandor, who spoke with some of the country’s top scientists and researchers about various projects in areas including Energy, Defence and Security, Built Environment, ICT, Health and Industry. Ramaphosa commended the work done by the CSIR to help steer South Africa, through scientific and technological research and development, towards a knowledge-based economy. During the Natural Environment session of the conference, the CSIR’s Prof. Francois Engelbrecht said current climate model projections are showing that average temperatures will increase by up to 4 degrees in parts of Africa by the end of the century, and by up to 3 degrees in parts of South Africa unless serious measures are taken.

“Even if the COP21 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December produces favourable negotiations among the world’s nations, resulting in more stringent action to cut emissions and counter climate change, experts are still unsure if the goal of keeping global warming under 2 degrees  is realistically attainable,” said Engelbrecht.

“Africa is warming faster than any other region on Earth and it has a relatively low adaptive capacity… farmers in some regions (are) already struggling to cope with temperature increases.” These are some of the reasons why the CSIR has teamed up with its counterparts in Australia and Japan to create the first African-based Earth system model that will be able to make more accurate climate projections “through an African lens”.

Of equal concern was statistics cited by Andre McDonald, also of the CSIR, in a presentation that claims that cybercrime costs the country R5,8 billion, or 0,14% of its GDP, per annum. Surveys suggest 55 % of online adults in South Africa are currently exposed to cybercrime he says. This is largely because, according to him, most system administrators do not implement sufficient access control protocols to protect servers and networks, leaving them at risk of easy exploitation.

To help counter this, McDonald and his team are working on a novel network intrusion detection software platform, which can “learn” the parameters of legitimate traffic patterns on a given network in order to be able to accurately detect, in real time, deviations from those patterns that might suggest a malicious intrusion – even if the software is dealing with a previously unobserved type of attack.

“Such threat detection can go a long way to protect the country’s networks. The trick is to properly ‘train’ the software in order to cancel out false positives as much as possible,” said McDonald.

The CSIR celebrates its 70th anniversary this year and appropriately a section of the conference exhibition floor was dedicated to some of the groundbreaking projects and patents that the CSIR has worked on. This included pioneering work on the first lithium-ion batteries of the kind that are to a large extent powering the modern technology-driven world.