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Climate change or incapable state? What’s really goin...

Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Drought

Climate change or incapable state? What’s really going down with the weather in the Eastern Cape

Artworks by deceased South African artist, Helen Martins, are seen in the garden of her family house in the tiny Karoo town of Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, 10 November 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

In the past few days, Maverick Citizen has carried a series of frontline reports on how communities are coping (or not) with the severe drought in the Eastern Cape. The question on many people’s lips is ‘What’s going on? Why is the weather behaving like this and what can we do about it?’ To try to answer this, we spoke to meteorologists and climate experts.

Is there a drought in the Eastern Cape?

No one disputes that this is a severe drought.

According to Garth Sampson, spokesperson for the Port Elizabeth office of the South African Weather Service:

We have to get the message across. It’s dire. It’s not going to go away. Lots of records are being broken… The 3.0mm measured in August was the driest August for 120 years. Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) is fast heading for the first time that four years in a row rainfall is below 500mm.”

The average is 635mm.

Sampson adds: “What makes the situation worse is the metro gets the majority of its rain in winter. We would now have to wait for around March/April before we can expect decent rain, according to statistics.”

Sampson says the forecast for rain is below normal and there will not be much rain before December. He feels that the situation in small towns like Makhanda, Graaff-Reinet, Adelaide and Fort Beaufort is “desperate”.

Frightening facts

With just over two months to go before year-end, most of the Eastern Cape has yet to receive half of its annual average rainfall. If the seasonal forecast of below-average rainfall for the rest of the year is anything to go by, then we can expect record low figures in numerous parts of the Eastern Cape.

  • Graaff-Reinet has only received 150mm. The annual average is 295mm. Previous record low was 187mm in 1998.
  • Cradock has only received 154mm. The annual average is 341mm. Previous record low was 201mm in 1993.
  • Fort Beaufort has only received 220mm. The annual average is 295mm. Previous record low was 297mm in 2009.
  • Willowmore has only received 82mm. The annual average is 273mm. Previous record low was 156mm in 1991.
  • Patensie has only received 265mm. The annual average is 445mm. Previous record low was 306mm in 2005.
  • Middleton has only received 189mm. The annual average is 357mm. Previous record low was 214mm in 2016.
  • Makanda has only received 212mm. The annual average is 502mm. Previous record low was 349mm in 2008.

Maverick Citizen journalist Estelle Ellis agrees with him. After witnessing the strained faces of the citizens of the Karoo she says “something is going to give”. She talks about the impact of water shortages on the functioning of basic services such as schools (“where kids can’t go to the toilet”) and TB hospitals.

Dr Piotr Wolski is the chief research officer (hydro-climatology) at the world-renowned Climate System Analysis Group at UCT. Wolski points out that this drought started with an El Nino that affected the whole of South Africa in 2015/16. But he points out that, unlike other parts of the country, the Eastern Cape never recovered to its normal rainfall rates. The shortage of rain has subsequently been exacerbated by slightly higher temperatures, which means that what little water there is, evaporates faster.

Finally, the well-known Simon Gear, who describes himself as “the weather guy on Primedia”, points out that the Eastern Cape is a very complex weather area, in part because of its many mountains:

Every town has its own climate,” he says. Gear also believes that the position of the Agulhas Current affects where rain falls.

There are numerous cycles that affect SA weather of a frequency between three and a half years (El Nino/La Nina) and around 7-15 years (through orbital and sun variability). These vary in terms of how much they impact any one season depending on how in-synch they are, and this all shakes out at what looks broadly like the seven years of feast, seven years of famine with which SA farmers are familiar.”

Is it climate change?

Neither Wolski or Sampson will take a position on whether or not the drought is directly linked to climate change. That’s not surprising, because both are experts who refuse to speculate. Wolski stressed that a “full-blown study”, analysing multiple data-sources, would be needed to answer that question definitively. However, they make interesting and different but related points.

Like Gear, Sampson talks about the cyclical nature of the weather; of patterns with roughly seven years between peaks and troughs in rain. He says that as a full cycle takes roughly 15 years, at least two cycles must elapse to be able to generate “norms” – or tell us how far we are straying from norms. That is why a climatic norm is taken over 30 years

Sampson chooses to put lots of stress on the exponential growth of the population and the escalating demand for water.

He gives NMB as an example. Residents there consume 270 million litres of water per day. The dam is at 38%, “but remember that 20% [at the bottom of a dam] is unusable.” Put bluntly, NM Bay is running out of water, yet there is an estimated 30% loss of water through leaks, much of it from government schools.

Wolski stresses that drought is a natural and ancient climate phenomenon, but one now being exacerbated by climate change, meaning that droughts are most likely “stronger, longer and more frequent than in the past”.

He explains that access to water is dependent on three separate but interlinked factors. First and most obviously is the levels of rainfall; second is the design of water reticulation and distribution systems (read this article again, dear reader); and the third is how people react as the shortage develops.

Water systems should be designed with lean years of rainfall (drought) in mind; that way the impact of lower levels of rainfall during a drought can be managed. This is known as “level of assurance of supply”. But if the water systems are creaking at the seams and broken, then the effects of drought are exacerbated and the climate crisis makes itself felt directly, as is happening now in the Eastern Cape. This leads to critical shortages that are felt by communities and farmers.

As if confirming this, Sampson says that another challenge he has witnessed in the Eastern Cape is that when rain eventually comes, “there’s a massive spike in consumption that builds on problems for later”. People only think in the short term. NMB Metro spent a lot of money on making the public aware of the water crisis – and other strategies to encourage behaviour change – but with limited success.

Who is worst affected?

Sampson attends many meetings of municipal managers and reports: “Lots of people are going off the grid completely as far as water is concerned. Affluent people can afford to do this. Poor people can’t.”

And sadly, Maverick Citizen correspondents bear this out. Nosintu Mcimeli, the founder of Abanebhongo Persons with Disabilities, lives in what she describes as “the dusty rural areas of Nqamakwe in the Eastern Cape”. Her own words express her frustration:

Firstly, we struggle on getting waters from our huge and local FAMOUS Dam (Xilinxa Dam) that is serving Butterworth, Nqamakwe and Idutywa village is DRY, DRY, DRY. Taps that are serving water from that dam have been dry for six months and when it is opened it is for only one day. You will find people queuing long lines, fighting and struggling to get that water before closed.

Secondly, women used to grow vegetables in their gardens and cook in homes, making them warm and full of love, but now husbands come back home and find no food and water, they become aggressive, they go outside and cheat and that IGNITES gender-based violence in households.”

Does the government have a mitigation plan for the drought in the Eastern Cape?

Simon Gear doesn’t beat around the bush: “The truth is, local governments don’t see water as a ‘sexy issue.’” He recalls being invited to MC the launch of the Eastern Cape’s climate change response strategy a decade ago in East London, where he drew delegates attention to how: “Less than 200m from the luxury hotel in which we held the launch, raw sewage was flowing into the harbour. My observation of such was not received well by the politicians present.”

Today he says: “It doesn’t seem like much has changed. Until a solid commitment is made by national and provincial governments across the country to sort out the simple and measurable task of properly treating local wastewater, we will have failed as a nation to arrest this crisis.”

Sampson and Wolski are more traditional scientists, so they parry the question. They work with the government so can’t risk alienating politicians.

This writer, on the other hand, has nothing to lose but the truth.

The answer is no. MC

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