South Africa: Where has all the water gone?

Thandi lifts up a handful of soil and watches as it disappears through her hands. Once rich and fertile and capable of producing bountiful crops, the soil is now bone dry.

“The ground used to be soft and easy to dig by hand; water was freely available just under the surface and food was plentiful; there was a lake nearby that provided fish for us to eat,” Thandi says. “But now the land is dry and hard and there is no water under the surface; even the lake has dried up.”

Thandi sits with a group of men and women under the shade of a large tree in Hluhluwe, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal province in the north-eastern corner of South Africa. Hluhluwe is a poor community struggling to contend with eight years of drought, high unemployment, rising poverty and some of the highest malaria and HIV rates in the country. Now, after years of fighting for access to adequate health care, food, clean water and sanitation and striving to reduce the effects of HIV and AIDS and conflict, the Hhuhluwe community is facing another battle — climate change.

This is what has brought me here. Oxfam Australia works with 10 partners in UMKhanyakude to help communities with high levels of HIV grow and obtain enough food to eat. While largely unaware of the term ‘climate change’, the local communities are concerned about the effects of prolonged drought and extremely low rainfall on their crops. Understanding climate change

Hluhluwe is one of six communities I am visiting in UMKhanyakude to get a better understanding about the effects of climate change here — what impact it is having, what communities know about it and how they are adapting to it.

Climate change is an area of work Oxfam will be placing a greater focus on in coming years. The findings from this research in Hluhluwe will be incorporated into our current projects in UMKhanyakude and be shared with partners and Oxfam affiliates across the Southern African region.

As I talk with the men and women of Hluhluwe, the conversation quickly turns to the weather and how it has changed in the past 50 years. “The weather is much hotter and drier and more humid,” says one. “We can’t tell as much difference between summer and winter anymore,” says another. “We used to talk about when the drought would end; now we are thinking that maybe it is not going to end,” says another. “I don’t see how things are going to get better.”

Although the people of Hluhluwe have experienced droughts and floods for as long as they can remember, since the mid-1990s they have noticed a gradual drying of the land.

The ground was once so lush that people could use their hands to dig for water just below the surface. But those times have long gone. Even the rainwater tanks that were installed as a solution now stand dry. The local council sends a truck to fill up the tanks, but there is no delivery schedule, nor any guarantee the truck will return. While we are there a truck comes, but is only able to half-fill one tank. This water will only last a week or so. Coping with water shortages

To cope with the water shortages, the community has sunk a borehole but had to dig more than 80 meters to find water. They plan to use this water for a community garden that will provide nutritious food for Hluhluwe’s most vulnerable residents. There is no guarantee that the borehole will last, but it is their best hope.

The facts are simple. Without water, the community’s crops and gardens won’t grow. Without these vital fruits, vegetables and grains, people aren’t able to get the nutritious foods they need to stay healthy. And in a community affected by HIV and AIDS, this has devastating consequences. Thandi, who works with our partner Hluhluwe Advent Creche, says rainfall has become more erratic over the last few decades, occurring less frequently and for shorter periods.

Adds Ntombifikice from the Ithembalesizwe Drop-In Center: “The seasons are not the same as they used to be; winter is not as cold now and summer rains are more erratic.”

Although the people I speak with know the climate is changing, they don’t know why it’s happening; nor have they heard about global warming or have any knowledge about the current global debates on these issues. Adapting to climate change

“We don’t know what is causing these problems,” says Eunice, from Hluhluwe Advent Creche, “perhaps the world is coming to an end.” In speaking to the men and women of Hluhluwe, one thing is clear — they desperately want to learn how to adapt to the changes in climate in the longer term. At the moment they are simply trying deal with the prolonged drought conditions as best they can, by doing what they have always done but on a reduced scale. They make their gardens smaller, grow different types of crops and walk further to collect water — short-term coping mechanisms, not long-term solutions.

“We need water pipes,” Thandi says. “We need to learn how to look after the land and adapt to the drier conditions; we need to grow more drought-tolerant crops and vegetables; we need to learn more about climate change; and we need training in how we can speak up on these issues.”

Over the next six years, in line with the new Oxfam International and Oxfam Australia strategic plans, we will be working to help communities adapt to climate change and prepare for added burdens it will bring. We will support communities who are most at risk of losing their livelihoods; and demand greater international action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping communities adapt to the changes.

In short, we will make sure climate change becomes central to our development processes.

By undertaking this research in UMKhanyakude, we are already starting down this path. We now better understand the impact of climate change in this district and the struggles people are having as a result. And now we will incorporate this into our work.

Climate change is a reality and although it will affect us all, it will hit poor people the hardest. There is no time to waste.

Charlotte Sterrett is Oxfam Australia’s Southern Africa Program Officer. Originally published: July 2007

Information taken from: Sterrett Ch., South Africa: Where has all the water gone?, Oxfam International

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