Namibia is currently going through its worst drought on record. Large parts of the desert nation have not received a single drop of rain in over ten years. Only the southern part of the country received sparse rainfall about a decade ago. Since then, nothing. Drought has wiped out a significant portion of the country’s rangeland, which has in turn caused farmers to sell off livestock at below market rates. Rivers in the north have dried up and people have to dig into the riverbeds to get water for their fast-dwindling livestock.
Drought conditions caused the national economy to shrink by 1.5% in 2019, and a Coronavirus-induced slowdown in activities was expected to cause a further 6.6% contraction in 2020. This forced President Hage Geingob to declare a national drought emergency, immediately followed by an urgent appeal to the international community for help. The Namibian government auctioned 1,000 animals from game reserves to countries that have water for them. With less food production at home, Namibia is forced to spend more money on food imports from its neighbours. The Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that at least 730,000 Namibians were severely food insecure in 2020.
Over one hundred thousand animals have died in the northern border between Namibia and Angola due to water shortages. The future looks bleak for smallholders who own more than four million cattle and sheep in the area. It is not easy to fill watering holes and it is even more difficult to irrigate fields. Most people in Angola’s Namibe, Huila, Bié and Cunene provinces, which share similar characteristics with Namibia, are also at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
To Angola’s west, water shortages are shutting down economies in Zambia and Zimbabwe. In late 2019, photos of the Victoria Falls which had dried to a trickle, made their way around the world and caused gasps and horror wherever they were seen. The Kariba dam in neighbouring Zambia dropped below 20%, thus -due to its reliance on Zambia and South Africa for most of its power- Zimbabwe is thirsty, hungry, and plunged into darkness at night withdaily power cuts lasting up to 18 hours.. Fortunately, Kariba’s water levels have since bounced back to about 35% although the Zambezi River Authority is still limiting Zambia and Zimbabwe’s power generation capacity to 275MW.
For those who live in Harare’s affluent western suburbs, such as Belvedere, Mbare, Warren Park, Highfield, Sandon Park, Bluff Hill, Marlborough, accessing water is not a problem. The taps flow constantly, almost uninterrupted. The lawns are green and the pools are full. Most homes have boreholes and water tanks. However, for the rest of the country, there is a completely different reality. The World Food Programme estimated that half of Zimbabwe’s entire population was at risk of severe hunger in late 2019 due to drought conditions. That situation has been further complicated by the Coronavirus and a deep political crisis in 2020.
Water scholar Gwinyai Taruvinga confirms that many households have not received a single drop of water from the water utility in twelve months and that this reality is not just as a result of drought conditions, but also due to government corruption and a general inability to plan ahead. He believes that drought conditions will hit rural communities especially hard because they do not have extra resources to drill boreholes. To support these communities, the government has drilled boreholes for some of them. However, the drilling is not keeping pace with demand.
Crop failures have also forced vulnerable people to start eating will tubers and leaves, some of which are not healthy for consumption. Zimbabwe has been relying on donations, food imports and remittances from its diaspora to feed its population. For instance, in early 2020, the country struck a deal with Uganda under the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) protocol to purchase maize grain.
Animals in the SADC region’s game reserves have not been spared. Along the Okavango, which runs through Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, large numbers of animals, especially elephants, zebras, wildebeest, rhinoceros, and impala have repeatedly collapsed and died in 2020. Researchers who investigated the deaths discovered that the animals were being killed by contamination from dangerous algae in shrinking stagnant pools. Emergency rehabilitation solutions have stopped the deaths, but rain is needed to improve the situation going forward.
In Malawi, an inability to recover from Cyclone Idai, coupled with persistent drought conditions, helped topple the government of Peter Mutharika in June 2020. El Niño droughts also hit Mozambique hard right after Cyclones Idai and Kenneth just before the harvest period, pushing over two million people into food vulnerability. About 80% of Mozambicans depend on farming for survival and the World Health Organisation believes that prolonged food shortages will expose more people to opportunistic infections like malaria and typhoid. The Coronavirus pandemic has obviously complicated this picture even more.
In the South West Indian Ocean, Madagascar which is one of the poorest countries in the world with over 75% of the population living on less than 2 dollars a day, has witnessed five severe droughts in the past two decades. The island nation also witnesses an average of three cyclones per year, with each one impacting up to 500,000 people on average. Much of the West and the South (Grand Sud) has received little to no rain in the past decade and this is having devastating consequences on the population. Water merchants have been travelling long distances to find water, which they then load onto zebu carts and sell in the villages for a few US$ cents.
Smallholders who are almost completely dependent on their own production have been running out of food much earlier in the lean season, before their next harvests are in. There is very little to harvest in any case, because the heat is scorching the plants. It is a vicious cycle. Without rain, people cannot grow crops. What little crops they manage to sow fail. This forces farmers to sell what they have at home to provide for their families. Sometimes, they also sell the seeds they have put aside for the next season, which exposes them to severe acute malnutrition. Among other vulnerable groups, children have particularly been affected, 60% of which are experiencing stunting: As a result, over 1.5 million learners have already dropped out of school in the past three years.
There is growing reliance on relief agencies like the World Food Programme and UNICEF for water deliveries and survival food parcels. Due to the country’s difficult terrain, food relief is usually distributed in cash. Beneficiaries receive cash vouchers of US$18 per month, which is enough to get rice, beans, cassava and some other staples. However, hen the poor cannot get food from relief agencies, they have to make do with cactus fruit, cassava and manioc leaves. Sadly, some of these foodstuffs do not have any nutritive value. People eat them only for stomach-packing.
This picture is by no means a complete snapshot of the tough multi-year droughts that are pummeling southern Africa. Despite this dire challenge of biblical proportions, SADC leaders have not done enough to draw the world’s attention to the unfolding disaster at their doorstep. By working in silos, they have ensured that the problems of drought-affected populations are not top of mind on the global agenda.
SADC leaders need to declare an emergency now. They also need to close ranks and coordinate their efforts to draw the world’s attention to the climate disaster that they have been dealing with for years. Climate change is real, and their problems will only get worse. The prevailing mentality in Africa and indeed the rest of the globe, is that climate change is – to paraphrase the words of Kofi Annan – something that is going to happen in the future. It is an “unsexy” topic because it is happening in slow motion, not as sudden and dramatic as the Coronavirus pandemic. That explains why it is not front and centre of priorities, budgets and strategic plans.
It is hard to explain this belief because the data is stunning. Every year since 2010 has been hotter than the previous one. Over half the population of the entire SADC, including more than half its livestock, is under severe pressure caused by persistent drought conditions. By working together and by involving the international community, SADC leaders can develop long-term solutions to make their communities more resilient to drought. Other perennially water-stressed countries like Israel have developed long-term water solutions to manage their water (desalination, efficient drip irrigation systems, differentiated billing, recycling), making shortages a thing of the past and there is no reason why SADC leaders cannot have similar successes in their countries if they confront water challenges head-on.