Late Rains and Droughts in Namibia – Was 2013 a Snapshot of the Future? [analysis]

The Government’s promise that it is on alert for all possible events, including drought, is the most reassuring news the country’s crop and livestock farmers could hope for at the start of a new year where the lack of rain in the 2015 season is of grave concern, bearing in mind the debilitating drought of 2013.

This has once again put the spotlight on Namibia as the driest country south of the Sahara, and today senior agricultural reporter Deon Schlechter tries to answer the question whether the drought of 2013 was a snapshot of the future for Namibia.

In the Kunene region in the north, rain has not fallen for three years, and the United Nations (UN) last year estimated that 778,000 people – about one third of the population – are either moderately or severely food insecure. And this has had knock-on effects in the south of Angola, where an estimated 1.5 million people are also believed to be food insecure. In Namibia in 2013, hospitals were admitting increasing numbers of people suffering from malnutrition – with one district hospital in the Ohangwena region reporting a 76% increase in paediatric malnutrition since March that year – and many groups are finding it difficult to maintain their ways of life.

To tackle these problems, the Namibian government pledged N$240 million in relief for the worst-affected households, and the United Nations International Children Education Fund (UNICEF) raised some N$78 million to reach the 109,000 children under-five who were are at risk of severe malnutrition.The government did a good job of solving that problem but Namibia will remain vulnerable to such environmental crises unless concerted long-term efforts are also pursued effectively.

Consequences of climate change

One factor that could make Namibia increasingly prone to drought and extreme weather patterns is climate change. Though it is impossible to say to what extent the current lack of rain or the drought of 2013 were the consequences of global warming, President Hifikepunye Pohamba was quick to reference it when announcing the state of emergency in May 2013. “It has now been established that climate change is here to stay and humanity must find ways and means of mitigating its effects”, he said.

Indeed, the vulnerability and adaptation assessment the government commissioned in 2008 outlines a number of worrying trends that could have significant effects on the country.

In terms of temperature the study found that over the last 40 years the frequency of days when it exceeds 35oC has increased, along with average maximum temperatures. The report also said that Namibia will continue to get warmer, with its most extreme prediction being an increase of 4degC by 2046.

As for rainfall, various studies predicted that Namibia could experience shorter periods of more intensive rainfall as well as much more variability in its climate. This could lead to more severe and frequent droughts, but also to a higher likelihood of floods which can prove similarly devastating. In March 2011, for example, flooding in the Kalahari basin led to the displacement of 21,000 people and contributed to the spread of cholera.

Looking to the future

In the face of these impending challenges, some people are putting their hope in a recent finding. In 2013, an aquifer – an underground layer of permeable rock that yields water – was discovered under Namibian soil. German and Namibian scientists mapping the aquifer estimate that it covers 15,000 square km and that it could provide enough drinking water to supply central-north Namibia for up to 400 years. However, experts have also been quick to point out the many potential problems associated with extracting this water and insisted that the discovery is by no means a panacea for Namibia’s environmental challenges. Indeed, regardless of the water the aquifer could yield, there are many things the Namibian government needs to do to prepare the country for environmental change. And promisingly there are indications that the Namibian government seems to recognise this.

It is helping to build a broader picture of climate change by engaging with the UN-backed Global Environmental Facility, a body set up to help countries with lower resources tackle problems associated with climate change. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism has articulated the need for greater investment in climate adaptation, particularly in rural settings. Furthermore there are promising signs of the government recognising that areas experience climate change differently and therefore need different solutions. The government has thus signalled that it is prepared to take long-term measures and that it is looking ahead as well as addressing short-term concerns. But with one of the world’s most trying climates likely to get even more unpredictable and difficult to manage, the extent of what needs to be done to protect Namibians and their ways of life cannot be underestimated.

Source : New Era