A harvest of dysfunction: Causes and impacts of drought in South Africa

John Magrath Climate Change, Drought, General, Natural Resources, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

John Magrath introduces the report, A Harvest of Dysfunction: rethinking the approach to drought, its causes and impacts in South Africa.

“Interventions to assist poor people affected by drought must start with how drought itself is defined and understood” – so says Sipho Mthathi, Executive Director of Oxfam South Africa  in her introduction to a new report that challenges the narrative around, and the responses to, the catastrophic drought in South Africa in 2015-16.

A Harvest of Dysfunction: rethinking the approach to drought, its causes and impacts in South Africa (PDF) combines in-depth interviews with people who lived through the drought with analysis of media coverage and official pronouncements, to understand how different sections of society saw what was happening, and how and why they responded as they did.

“We used to have three meals a day but now we have two. If I don’t have enough food, I try to fill the children and I eat the burnt remains.”
Welile Mpungose in Msinga, Kwazulu-Natal. 

The authors find that “the devastation caused by the drought is not simply a consequence of poor rainfall; it is a harvest of dysfunction, arising from South Africa’s failure to address structural inadequacies”.

Official explanations of the drought

Drought needs to be understood as a social disaster with national impacts

Official and popular descriptions of drought saw it in terms of reduced rainfall, with predominantly rural impacts on agriculture, and in particular impacts on large farms that grew maize or had sizeable herds of cattle.

They saw it as a single, “God-given event” and, when the rains came again, assumed that the problem had been solved. This attitude to drought also influenced the response. The government declined to declare a national emergency, and relief measures were largely geared towards larger farmers.

“I’m silenced by this drought … Even goats have died. And we’re hungry too. As for water – I don’t know where to get it from anymore.”
MaSkhakane in Msinga, Kwazulu-Natal.

In particular, official responses largely failed to take into account that the impacts of the drought differed according to gender; women suffered especially badly, and in different ways to men.

A social disaster

This was not always, however, due solely to government failure to appreciate the situation. The report notes how entrenched social attitudes to gender, and the economic power of men versus women, mean that when water is short, it is men who decide who gets it. As one woman said: “The men see their cattle as most important, but I think the vegetables are, as we need them to feed our children and even the men in the evenings. But they say our gardens are wasting the water needed for their cattle”.

Oxfam says that drought needs to be understood as a social disaster with national impacts, not simply an agricultural disaster for rural areas. Therefore the response should be commensurate – for example via a “universal disaster grant”.

Report recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations regarding water resource management. These include that the State should roll out rainwater tanks to all low income households, and levy consumption-linked charges on higher-use households.  And using the concept of “virtual water” it argues that a ‘sin tax’ could be extended to certain middle-class consumption goods which use high amounts of water in production (e.g. beef, coffee and chocolate).

Its key principle is that water management in South Africa must simultaneously meet the twin challenges of reducing water use, and redistributing water resources to those who have consistently lost out. South Africa currently uses 98% of its available water resource, so there is no more to go around. The report therefore finds that, “historical, current and new users will have to shift their expectations of the amount of water they feel entitled to consume”.

Revising the way the country views and treats drought is crucial because, the report says, climate change is increasing the likelihood of more droughts as temperatures rise. It is possible that El Niño-like events will increase in number (and indeed, there are growing fears that 2017-18 might see yet another El Niño). And human demands for water will increase pressure on the resource. Therefore “drought should be seen as a condition rather than an event”.

As the report notes, rethinking and reforming water and agricultural policies are challenges in normal times, and even more so in times of scarcity. But “these challenges will escalate unless they are not effectively confronted now”.


Yasmin Begum