Hard times are coming

Water is already scarce in Southern Africa

Water is already scarce in Southern Africa

Two years of drought have exposed the brittle nature of Southern Africa’s resilience to water shortages. While a natural occurrence, El Niño has accelerated the drought, providing governments and people with an indication of what a future impacted by climate change may be like. 

Drought is not new to the region. Most southern African countries get by with little in the way of rainfall. Those to the east have a bit more, thanks to the warm Agulhas current flowing down that side of Africa. Warmth means more water gets evaporated into clouds, and more rain falls on the continent. The cold Benguela in the west has the opposite effect, which is why Botswana, Namibia and western South Africa are arid. In South Africa, the region’s biggest producer of food, industry, agriculture and humans have to compete for an average rainfall of 460mm a year — half the world average. 

To date this scarcity has been managed through feats of engineering. Big dams with towering, grey, cement walls hold the water that falls along the Drakensberg. The most important of these are in Lesotho, as part of that country’s Highlands Water Scheme. This water is then released to flow down canals and rivers to places where less rain falls. This means central South Africa can continue developing, where there is little rainfall and no big rivers. Infrastructure like this allows Johannesburg to be unique among big cities in not being on the coast or a river. 

These dams provide the country with a two- to three-year buffer when the rain stops falling. The historical rainfall patterns show that this happens once every 10 to 20 years. Droughts similar to the current one happened in 1991 and 1983, also as a result of El Niño, a phenomenon that rapidly warms the Pacific Ocean, leading to flooding in the northern hemisphere and drought in the southern hemisphere. Those droughts killed a million livestock and wiped out subsistence farming, particularly in other SADC countries that did not have enough dams. 

But South Africa is joining their ranks, thanks to new dams running behind schedule. The De Hoop Dam, critical to southern Limpopo’s water supply, opened five years behind schedule. The raising of other dam walls to increase their capacity has similarly been delayed or postponed. This is not yet a problem as most dams in the country are still around a quarter full. To extend their range, government has put water restrictions in place and is training 15 000 people to fix leaks in municipal infrastructure. All of this means the country’s big cities can survive the current summer and winter, before the predicted rains of next spring fall. Other countries in the region are not so lucky. Botswana has had to start emergency construction to bring in water from Lesotho, after its dams ran dry. Namibia’s capital Windhoek will run out of water by the end of this year. 

While dams mean water is stored for drinking, the intense heat and lack of rainfall has been catastrophic for food security in the region. South Africa produces 40% of basic foodstuffs for the region. The worst drought in 50 years — according to the South African Weather Service — means fewer crops in the ground, and even fewer surviving to produce healthy food. South Africa will have to import five million tonnes of maize until April 2017 according to GrainSA data, when the next crop harvest enters the food system. Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland will have to import 630 000 tonnes of maize from overseas to supplement the drop in South African production. But these countries have to buy food in dollars, increasing the pinch if their currencies are tied to the rand. The market for white maize is also small, thanks to the drought. Only Mexico and the US are still exporting. Less supply and more demand means food prices have also reached record levels.

The World Food Programme says 14 million people in the region are facing hunger as a result of the drought. Angolan authorities are supplying food parcels to 750 000 people, while Lesotho’s government says a third of its population does not have enough food. The government of Malawi says 2.8 million people there face hunger. Madagascar says 1.9 million people are in a similar situation, as are 1.5 million people in Zimbabwe. That country’s agriculture department says 24 000 cattle have died during the drought. Swaziland says it has lost 10 000 cattle, while around 20 000 have died in Botswana. In countries where cattle are effectively people’s savings, the food programme says this will have a long-term detrimental impact on communities. 

But future predictions show that these communities will have little breathing space to recover. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which collates data on the future climate, says Southern Africa will be one of the worst affected regions on earth. In the interior, temperatures will increase by an average of three to six degrees this century. The coast will warm at half that rate, but will have to deal with rising sea levels. In an already semi-arid Southern Africa, this will be most felt in changes in rainfall resembling, in the long term, the sudden impacts that El Niño has had in the past two years. 

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria predicts that winter rainfall in the region will decrease by an average of 23%. Summer rainfall will decrease by an average of 13%. When the rains do come, the council says it will come in shorter and heavier spells. That means less filters underground, and it will end up damaging crops as it smashes into the ground. Sudden floods will wash away topsoil, making it harder for farmers to recover for the next planting season. 

This means that while the current drought might be easing thanks to heavy downpours in the region, water scarcity and food insecurity will become the norm for an increasing number of people in a climate-affected future.

Global food and water insecurity

The United Nations says that three billion people will be faced with water insecurity by 2050, due to population growth and climate change. That body’s Framework Convention on Climate Change says this will add stress to societies that are already struggling with issues such as hunger and political unrest. Less rain and failing crops could exacerbate social conditions to levels where violence becomes more prevalent, it says. 

Last year, an influential public and private sector task force — the Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience Task Force — said global food shortages will be three times more likely, thanks to climate change and the resulting change in rainfall patterns. This variability will create near-constant price shocks. These used to happen once every 100 years, it said, but will now occur every 30 years. 

Global population will grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050, exacerbating food shortages. And though the world has been producing more food, the last droughts revealed that food-producing countries put themselves first. The report cited the 2010 drought as a good example of this: Russia imposed export restrictions on staple crops when its own crop failed. The result was a steep increase in the price of basic foodstuffs in many developing countries.

Sipho Kings