The Karoo has always been parched — it means land of thirst in the language of its earliest inhabitants, the Khoisan hunter gatherers. Yet nothing prepared residents of its oldest town, Graaff-Reinet, for their worst drought in more than a century.

As the dry spell entered its fourth year, tap water turned brown and smelled like rotting fish. When the water behind the Nqweba Dam dried up, depositing tens of thousands of dead fish onto cracked earth, queues began forming at municipal boreholes and farm animals died in their hundreds...

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