Defend Truth


The thirstland years are here – prepare for four more years of crippling drought


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Four more years of rising heat and drought – that’s the projection for southern Africa. Let’s not forget that the Syrian civil war began after a period of prolonged drought which devastated farming communities, crippled agricultural production and left thousands of families in poverty.

The World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Climate in Africa 2019 report has just confirmed some dreadful news for South Africa – drought and extreme heat conditions are set to persist until at least 2024. In other words, South Africa’s worst drought in a century will drag on for at least another four years.

What the country is witnessing now is three types of droughts, which are simultaneously affecting different parts of the country in varying degrees. Wits University’s Professor Mike Muller describes these droughts as follows:

  1. Meteorological drought, which is caused by less-than-average rainfall. South Africa gets less than 460mm of rain in good years and now, most parts of the country are getting less than that. Countries with good rainfall get up to 850mm of rain on average;
  2. Agricultural drought, which is characterised by little or no rainfall and which leads to loss of soil moisture and poor crop growth. Last year, grain production fell by about 10% and the same trend is continuing in parts of the country in 2020, notably with a 16% decline in the production of peanuts, for example; and
  3. Hydrological drought, which is the sharp drop in water availability in aquifers, lakes, rivers, etc, caused by meteorological drought.

Parts of the country are experiencing all three types of drought at the same time. The Northern Cape for example has been hit by a significant drop in rainfall, as well as stunting or complete disappearance of forage crops and reduced availability of water. About 10,000 farmers and over 6 million hectares of land are affected by these conditions.

Across the border in Namibia, beef and sheep cattle sales have plummeted. The Eastern Cape is going through similar conditions with dropping dam levels, browner landscapes and erratic or no rainfall.

With unavailability of forage pasture and low water levels, it is costing much more to feed animals, and that is driving up operational costs and pushing more and more farmers into debt. Imagine that scenario lasting another half decade. A total nightmare.

There is already a slow southwards migration of people, and, without significant deceleration of planetary heating, this trend will become a long-term phenomenon. The Northern Cape has always had hot temperatures, but many farms and businesses survived there because there was always enough water for people and animals. Now, with a thirsty Earth, leaving is becoming more and more attractive. Imagine South Africa slowly becoming a coastal country. That is a very real prospect.

That said, South Africa is not completely running out of water. We are not there yet and that is the good news. While dam levels are very low in Limpopo (57%), Mpumalanga (64%) and the Eastern Cape (47.9%), they are fairly full in other areas such as the Western Cape.

However, two things. First, the volume of water in a dam does not equate to equal outflows. A percentage is lost through evaporation and treatment. Second, we are not doing a very good job of managing the water that is available to us right now. I recently penned a piece on the severity of drought and water management challenges in South Africa. This follow-up focuses more on solutions.

We can and must do better. Water conservation has to become a national priority, otherwise we will soon start running out of it in more places around the country.

In too many cases, repairs and upgrades to dams and bulk water transmission systems have been postponed for way too long. Mkhuseli Sizani and James Stent concur, in the case of Nelson Mandela Bay, that “… the dire situation has been caused by the municipality failing to replace and repair old infrastructure, or sufficiently reduce leakage”.

In Gauteng, residents of Midvaal and Emfuleni complained for years about raw sewage and untreated water being dumped onto their streets before action was taken to solve the problem. Neighbouring manufacturing sites were also dumping up to 150 megalitres of untreated waste water into the Vaal River, which feeds into the Vaal Dam. It took the SANDF corps of engineers to bring the situation under control, a stunning acknowledgement of failure at municipal level.

In Kimberley and Makhanda, dams and ageing water supply infrastructure were neglected for years until they started collapsing. The result was that they underperformed just when urban agglomerations were growing and more people were required to stay at home due to Covid-19-related restrictions.

Insufficient capacity in municipalities is also stretching the period for repairing burst pipes and reconnecting communities. Burst pipes have kept communities in Gauteng (Northcliff, Melville, Ferndale, North Rising, Emfuleni), Eastern Cape (Makana, Nelson Mandela Bay), Limpopo (Louis Trichardt, Polokwane, Thabazimbi) and Northern Cape (Kimberley) without water for weeks over the past month alone.

There is a human face to these water crises. It is usually the poor, women and children who bear the brunt of water shortages. Women and children are spending an incalculable number of hours fetching water around the country. In middle- and high-income suburbs, people can quickly dash to the supermarket for 5 litre bottles of water. They can afford that type of unplanned expenditure. However, poorer households cannot afford the extra spend on water, although many people have been giving up means and postponing hospital trips to do just that in Limpopo, Eastern Cape and other provinces.

Planning of repairs and upgrades to water sources must be prioritised. Budgets for these projects must be ring-fenced so that they cannot be reallocated to competing priorities. A national task team must be set up to monitor progress on major water infrastructure projects around the country. The various tiers of government should develop a national wetlands management plan.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use (Afolu) consume more than 60% of South Africa’s water. This number can be significantly reduced through the deployment of efficient irrigation systems, a process which the state can incentivise through tax cuts, for example. The Afolu sector also needs to work to adopt more sustainable agricultural practices for its own survival. The fastest-growing crop in Europe, for example, is sorghum, a drought-resistant crop indigenous to Africa which consumes 30% less water than maize. Sorghum also replenishes soil nutrients, so that farmers have to use less fertiliser the following planting season. More South African farmers should start to adopt this crop.

Households that use more water on average should be charged more after a certain threshold.

More than 2 million smallholders who used to grow some of their own food have given up farming altogether due to persistent drought conditions. The departments of agriculture and water should set up more water catchments and dams to help smallholder farming survive. If more farms continue to fail, that will drive up poverty, vulnerability and possibly migration for jobs.

In hotels and in our homes, small changes can make a big difference. Some of the best practices that were drilled into South Africans during Cape Town’s Day Zero campaign need to be adopted nationwide. It makes no sense that residents of the Eastern Cape on average still consume more water than their counterparts in the Western Cape.

We have to obey municipalities’ injunctions not to water our lawns between 6am and 6pm.

By installing tanks in our homes, we can use the water from our baths and our washing to flush toilets. Recycled water should also be used to water lawns. We should take more showers than baths and taps should not be left to run when we shave or brush our teeth.

We should only use our dishwashing machines when they are full. We can also switch to doing the dishes ourselves, rather than using machines.

Households that use more water on average should be charged more after a certain threshold.

In the past few months, we have seen violent protests in KwaZakhele, Emfuleni, Barberton and other places. Residents of Emfuleni vowed not to take part in by-elections if their water was not reconnected quickly. We cannot assume that these protests will not become more violent and potentially destabilising factors in the country. Let’s not forget – the Syrian civil war began after a period of prolonged drought which devastated farming communities, crippled agricultural production and left thousands of families in poverty. These people migrated to urban areas where anger over joblessness, hunger and government inaction eventually boiled over, leading to mass protests and, eventually, a full-blown war.

Water is life. Water issues sparked conflicts in at least 45 countries in 2017 and to avert a similar scenario in South Africa, we need to start managing water and water infrastructure better, with everybody doing their bit to advance this objective. DM



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