Drought Watch

The poor pay price of authorities not learning history’s lessons


Much more can be done to manage the impact of droughts on the economy and on society if a new, more holistic, approach to the challenge is introduced.

Both the Minister of Agriculture and one of the biggest food retailers in South Africa recently made claims of profiteering on the back of the worst drought in a century.

This is, however, but one of the symptoms of a too narrow approach in dealing with the realities of what is a natural phenomenon.

A recent workshop in Australia as part of an international collaboration to improve drought forecasting, concluded: “A new community of practice for drought is needed to integrate models, data and knowledge on the complex interactions between climate, soil, water, ecosystems and society so we are better prepared for the next big dry.”

How wide the impact of a drought is, is reflected in an article last week on The Conversation website by eight scientist participants in the workshop.

Their introductory paragraphs state: “The Millennium Drought taught Australians many lessons about living under extremely dry conditions – not just about how to conserve water, but also about human suffering.

“In a drought, farmers find it more difficult to make an income, leading to mental health problems and raising the rate of male suicides. In the city, the impact is felt through water restrictions and more expensive infrastructure.”

Although drought is a common threat in many parts of the world, it is traditionally measured, judged and predicted only in terms of rainfall (or lack of it), water storage and soil moisture.

“But none of these physical measures actually describes the impacts on people and society. A dry period may not feel like a drought at all if there are no impacts on the environment, economy or people.

“Conversely, droughts that are relatively modest in physical terms can be devastating if they strike where people are already vulnerable.

“If we can make our forecasting smarter, our efforts can be targeted to places where the biggest impacts are expected to be felt,” the Australian scientists wrote.

Better monitoring and forecasting

The scientists argue that the basic problem is that “drought measurement and forecasting is traditionally the domain of meteorologists and hydrologists, who do not consider (or are distant from) the real impacts of drought on people and the environment.”

More can and should be done to integrate seasonal weather outlooks with drought monitoring to estimate the likelihood of changes in drought conditions in the short term.

But while improvements in forecast efforts will be useful, a second problem is that droughts develop gradually and might not be noticed until there are already significant impacts on society or the economy.

It is mostly also mainly treated as an agricultural challenge and not considered in terms of the impact on urban environments and society at large.

At the workshop it was concluded that drought is always socially mediated and therefore forecasting systems should consider the potential societal impacts of drought, as well as the physical ones.

Monitoring and forecasting systems need to include estimates of the impact on agriculture, economy, society and the environment to forecast where the drought will really bite.

“This could involve using real-time data in rural areas on farms’ financial stress, or problems with mental health and injuries. This would send early signals about the onset of droughts.

“New technologies such as citizen science smartphone apps and social media could be used to capture this information – privacy concerns about sharing this sensitive data could be overcome with secure data management protocols and agglomeration of individual information,” they wrote.

Preparing properly

The lack of preparing properly for inevitable droughts and ensuring that the infrastructure, especially in rural areas, where a substantial portion of South Africa’s poor majority lives, is also currently vividly exposed. It tells the story of lessons from history not learned.

Government has just made more than R3 billion available to municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) to fight the crippling impact of the drought on communities in the province. The money will be used to sink boreholes and build water storage facilities in especially rural areas.

It should not have taken the present drought to get these measures in place. The lesson should have been learned during the previous drought. Some communities, such as Pamlaville near Kokstad, have in fact never had clean running water.

For the people of Pamlaville the local stream has always been their source of drinking water, which they share with livestock, and even that has dried up.

Ironically the KZN Member of the Executive Committee for Cooperative Governance Traditional Affairs in KwaZulu-Natal, Nomusa Dube-Ncube in announcing the project said “We have proactively moved to mitigate the impact of drought’s impact (zic).” (Our emphasis.)

similar situation developed in villages outside Giyani in Limpopo when a water purification plant, opened last year by President Jacob Zuma, had to be shut down due to low dam levels. Some residents are forced to buy water from those who have boreholes.

Impact on the poor

Better forecasting would also assist members of society to prepare better to deal with, and cushion themselves against, some of the impacts of drought. This is especially true for the middle- and upper class members of society who are in the first instance better equipped to deal with, for instance, rising food prices,

They could stock up on some foodstuffs because of the availability of electricity and equipment like freezers – both luxuries that the poor lack.

And the same goes for retailers and food suppliers, who, Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson last week said, “should not use the drought and weak rand as an excuse for unnecessary price hikes.” 

He also advised consumers to look at, for instance, taking advantage of alternative, cheaper proteins such as pork, “where the price had actually declined 4% — rather than beef, the price of which was 15% higher than a year ago”.

He also pointed out that frozen vegetables had experienced far lower price inflation of about 2% compared with fresh vegetables — carrots, for example, were up 60% due to the drought.

Again, this is not necessarily an option open to the really poor.


We fully agree with the Australian workshop’s conclusions about better drought forecasting. But we don’t need better forecasting models and methodologies to know that Australia, South Africa and just about any other part of the world will experience droughts from time to time.

If we learn the lessons from history and act on them, we will be much less likely to need emergency interventions like the recent imbizo between Deputy Minister of Agriculture Bheki Cele, farmers and agricultural authorities in Mpumalanga.

If we took proper heed of history, the money now spent on expensive emergency measures could have been better used to assist the most vulnerable in society to survive the drought.

Also read: Is the drought to end with a disastrous splash?

by Piet Coetzer

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