subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

By June 2023 meteorological experts predicted there was a high likelihood for the Southern African region to receive below-normal rainfall due to El Niño-induced weather conditions. Indeed, the rainy season started later than usual.

The SA Weather Service, on the other hand, has indicated that while the central and south-western parts of the country might have drier conditions, the north-eastern region (which produces most of SA’s grain) is likely to have average rainfall. 

Whatever the eventual outcome, it is important for the government to re-evaluate its drought response strategy. By definition, drought is a shortage of water due to low rainfall. Its effects are usually broadly felt and include poor crop harvests, higher food prices, deaths of people and livestock, more infectious diseases such as cholera, poor economic activity, unemployment and  possibly political unrest.

While wealthy countries are also prone to drought, famines are generally avoided because advanced economies have greater resilience through irrigation systems, robust water infrastructure (dams, groundwater, desalination), strong currencies and ample food reserves, secured from previous successful agricultural seasons. 

SA’s drought management plan is based on the white paper on disaster management (1999), the Disaster Management Act (2002) and the National Drought Management Plan (2005). Most responsibility for addressing drought and its effects is given to the department of agriculture, with subsidiary roles for the Treasury and provincial and local government. 

However, a broader, multisectoral drought plan would go a long way towards helping avoid the problems associated with ad hoc (spontaneous) responses. The drought plan should be more specific when it comes to the various ministries’ obligations, so that these do not have to be negotiated in the midst of a crisis. It should comprise tasks to be performed before, during and after a drought, to build maximum resilience.

Droughts can be complex in that they bring with them problems beyond just the scarcity of water. Thus, when crafting a comprehensive drought response it is important to take stock of all adverse effects on the country. At the earliest prediction, the relevant government departments, including international relations, finance and diplomatic missions, should initiate negotiations for sizeable disbursements of humanitarian aid from multilateral institutions, nonprofit organisations and bilateral partners.

This will be necessary for as long as SA is still a developing nation. The Treasury’s growing debt burden means national financial resources have become more limited, and it is thus difficult to provide an adequate cushion. Co-ordinating resources only when the worst effects of the drought become noticeable would be unfortunate, because at that stage donors would have already been swarmed by other countries in the region that are also in need, having also been subject to El Niño conditions.

The department of health should have a high level of preparedness to prevent and quickly resolve outbreaks of diarrheal diseases such as cholera, even before a drought ensues. The department of local government may need to assess the competence of metros and  municipalities with regard to the implementation of water rationing in affected communities. If  “water-shedding” is communicated beforehand and does not last for more than a few hours it can result in water savings that can enable reservoirs to last longer before the next rainy season.

“No-drop” monitoring programmes, where council officials inspect for leakages and encourage residents and businesses to repair them, or repairing them themselves and charging it to their municipal accounts, may also be essential in limiting resource wastage. Additionally, conservation should be encouraged long after the threat of drought is gone. This will add to the resilience of urban areas and keep them prepared for the next drought, regardless of its severity.

It has been reported that in urban areas only 15% of rain water enters the ground. This is a stark difference from 50% groundwater infiltration in rural areas. Pavements, roads and other infrastructure in urban areas cause excessive water runoff. While some of this ends up in dams, much flows into rivers that empty directly into the ocean. The department of local government should therefore improve its diligence and ensure that going forward no new infrastructure is built on wetlands, which are responsible for replenishing groundwater.

Higher tariffs may have to be introduced for heavy water users during drought years, or even a few months before forecast droughts, to disincentivise excess water consumption. Water reclamation can also be encouraged, with councils either buying back greywater for filtration and redistribution for non-human consumption purposes, or strongly encouraging its reuse by residents themselves.

The department of agriculture should strive for wider use of drip irrigation technologies in local agriculture. Globally, agriculture is reported to be responsible for up to 70% of total fresh water consumption. Water savings by farming operations will therefore improve the country’s resilience and adaptability in times of crisis.   

The department should also ensure that as soon as the cropping season nears an end it establishes reliable estimates of the country’s forthcoming harvest. This is useful to determine whether imports of grain will be necessary and how much will be needed. If imports are required they should be expeditiously arranged. Promptly acquiring imports can help pre-empt steeper grain prices in the latter half of the year, since it is likely that all or most of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region will experience the same El Niño-induced weather conditions.

Villagers in rural areas will also need education on conservation and the various measures that can be used to help rainwater infiltration and avoid excessive runoff and erosion. These may include reforestation, afforestation and agroforestry, which involves the establishment of crops, trees, vegetation and livestock on farms regardless of their location and their primary agricultural focus. Agroforestry has the further advantage of creating microclimates that result in more rainfall than surrounding areas due to their balanced ecological conditions.   

To promote the viability of arid regions the Treasury could establish more favourable special economic zone incentives for those areas. This will assist in reducing their dependency on rainfall for economic activity. In areas where economic and infrastructural development are unthinkable due to aridity, it may be crucial for the department of social development to relocate the residents so that their wellbeing is assured.   

The departments of education and social development should monitor school dropout rates more diligently and preset campaigns and measures to deter teen pregnancies and child marriages, which are often caused by drought-induced poverty.

Ultimately, there is a need to have a multisectoral, co-ordinated and updated response to drought. This will streamline government measures and avert the evolution of oncoming droughts into fully fledged crises. Promoting water conservation, before or during droughts, will also keep the nation physically, mentally and administratively prepared for the next drought.

Moreover, since drought is a weather phenomenon, the strategies should be flexible enough to switch budget commitments to other government departments if the forecast drought does not unfold in line with initial estimates. Once the country has an expertly drafted drought plan it can expand on it to integrate its peers within the Sadc region.

• Tutani is a political economy analyst.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.