WINDHOEK – The year 2013 will always be remembered by Namibian farmers as one of the toughest and most challenging periods in 30 years due to the debilitating and devastating drought still threatening the agricultural sector and the country’s food security.
The immediate situation remains serious, and now that the rainy season so far hasn’t brough much rain either the drought underlines the importance of Namibia’s efforts to become climate resilient.
One factor that could make Namibia increasingly prone to drought and extreme weather patterns is climate change.
Though it is impossible to say to what extent the current drought is a consequence of global warming, President Hifikepunye Pohamba was quick to reference it when announcing the state of emergency in May this year.
“It has now been established that climate change is here to stay and humanity must find ways and means of mitigating its effects,” the Head of State said at the time.
In the Kunene region, it has not rained in two years, and the UN recently estimated that 778 000 people – approximately one third of the population – are either moderately or severely food insecure.
And this has had knock-on effects in the south of Angola, where an estimated 1.5 million people are food insecure.
In Namibia, hospitals have been admitting increasing numbers of people suffering from malnutrition – with one district hospital in the Ohangwena region recently reporting a 76 percen increase in paediatric malnutrition since March.
And many groups are finding it difficult to maintain their way of life.
To tackle these problems, the Namibian Government has pledged N$200 million in relief for the worst-affected households, and Unicef is trying to raise N$70.4 million to reach the 109 000 children under five who are at risk of severe malnutrition.
So far, the government’s relief efforts have encountered various problems, which it has promised to iron out.
However, even if the current crisis is overcome in the short term, Namibia will remain vulnerable to such environmental crises unless concerted long-term efforts are also pursued effectively.
Consequences of climate change
Indeed, the vulnerability and adaptation assessment the Namibian government commissioned in 2008 outlines a number of worrying trends that could have significant effects on the country.
In terms of temperature the study found that over the last 40 years the frequency of days when it exceeds 35 degrees has increased, along with average maximum temperatures. The report also said that Namibia will continue to get warmer, with its most extreme prediction being an increase of 4 degrees by 2046.
As for rainfall, the report predicted Namibia could experience shorter periods of more intensive rainfall as well as much more variability in its climate.
This could lead not only to more severe and frequent droughts, but also to a higher likelihood of floods which can prove similarly devastating. In March 2011,for example, flooding in the Kalahari basin led to the displacement of 21 000 people and contributed to the spread of cholera.
Looking to the future
In the face of these impending challenges, some people are putting their hope in a recent finding.
Last year, an aquifer – an underground layer of permeable rock that yields water – was discovered under Namibian soil. German and Namibian scientists mapping the aquifer estimate it covers 15 000 square km and that it could provide enough drinking water to supply central-north Namibia for up to 400 years.
However, experts have also been quick to point out the many potential problems associated with extracting this water and insisted that the discovery is by no means a panacea for Namibia’s environmental challenges.
Indeed, regardless of the water the aquifer could yield, there are many things the government needs to do to prepare the country for environmental change. And promisingly there are indications that the government seems to recognise this.
It is helping to build a broader picture of climate change by engaging with the UN-backed Global Environmental Facility, a body set up to help countries with lower resources tackle problems associated with climate change. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism has articulated the need for greater investment in climate adaptation, particularly in rural settings.
And region-specific Community Climate Adaption toolkits have been produced and translated into several languages, offering advice to communities.
Furthermore there are promising signs of the government recognising that areas experience climate change differently and therefore need different solutions.
The government has thus signalled that it is prepared to take long-term measures and that it is looking ahead as well as addressing short-term concerns.
But with one of the world’s most trying climates likely to get even more unpredictable and difficult to manage, the extent of what needs to be done to protect Namibians and their ways of life cannot be underestimated.
Farmers in the Opuwo area told New Era that their livestock kraals are empty. So too are the granaries. Hunger and hardship are recurring themes in Kunene, the northwest province in Namibia considered the hardest-hit region by a drought many consider the worst in decades.
Almost one million people out of Namibia’s 2.3 million inhabitants face moderate to serious levels of food insecurity.
Namibia’s crop harvest yielded 42 percent less than 2012, and warning bells have already sounded that the dry land crop producers might plant up to 50 percent less this season that was supposed to have started in November but was delayed by the absence of rain and soil moisture.
In Kunene, two years of failed rains have devastated millet and maize plantations, dried up watering holes for livestock, and forced a population to search for precarious water supplies.
Animals drink stagnant water in dry riverbeds, while some Namibians dig for water across the province and guard any source found with little wooden fences.
In May this year, President Pohamba was forced to declare a state of emergency and requested N$330.7 million in international support to avert a crisis. Recognising the strain across the country, the IFRC and Unicef launched appeals for N$10.2 million and $70.4 million respectively. Algeria donated N$10 million in food aid and South Africa pledged N$100 million.
Experts say Namibia’s status as a middle-income country hasn’t helped its appeals. Despite its wealth, the country suffers from high levels of income inequality. One-third of the population lives on less than N$10 a day, and Namibia ranked 120 out of 187 countries on the 2012 UNDP Human Development Index.
Malnutrition is the second-most common cause of death recorded for children under five, even in non-drought years. And with the onset of this year’s drought, an estimated 109 000 children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition.
“Namibia still does not feed itself and the middle-income classification comes from livestock, mining and fisheries industries – [this] does not provide an accurate situation on the ground,” Cousins Gwanama, Head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Namibia in Windhoek was quoted recently.
With little rainfall experienced thus far, farmers have described the drought as among the harshest in a generation. Granaries are empty as few crops were planted last year.
With plateaus unsuitable for grazing, many pastoralist farmers have been forced to leave their homes and families and herd their livestock to higher ground with more vegetation, often involving a few days’ walk.
Accustomed to little rainfall, farmers have survived in semi-arid regions of Namibia for decades.
But the total absence of precipitation has left many perplexed and concerned, their farms lurching towards economic ruin.
Officials have been quick to attribute the latest drought to rising desertification caused by climate change. Others, however, say rainfall patterns over the past four years suggest it is part of cyclical drought in the region.
But given that the country was devastated by flooding in 2009, and Zambezi region also experienced floods as late as March 2013, such extreme shocks within a few years are likely to give credence to theories that hold climate change responsible for the severe drought.
Meanwhile, farmers across the country wait for food rations and for the international community to take the situation more seriously.
But in terms of international assistance, Namibia’s middle-income status, low population, and inconsequential geography places it at the back of the queue on a continent that includes DR Congo, Somalia and Malawi.
– Additional reporting Al Jazeera
By Deon Schlechter