Drought Leaves Southern Africa High and Dry

Via The Wall Street Journal, a look at how Southern Africa’s worsening water crisis ravages crops, livestock and even the continent’s biggest waterfall:

Every Monday at 8 p.m. since November, Bulawayo residents have gathered next to their toilets to prepare for a ritual that has come to be known as the big flush—another sign of a water emergency across southern Africa.

For the 700,000 residents of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, flushing outside government-mandated times puts them at the risk of being fined.

Economies in the region are reeling from a second historic drought in three years, leaving 45 million people facing water and food crises, according to the United Nations. That marks a sharp rise in recent years, the U.N. and other aid agencies said.

In Zambia, a drought that has ravaged the corn harvest is forcing families to survive on wild plants and roots, while in Namibia, 30,000 drought-related cattle deaths have been recorded since April and some 200 elephants have starved to death in national parks along the Zambezi River.

Since December, the volume of water pouring from the Zambezi over the massive Victoria Falls, at the border where Zimbabwe meets Zambia, has fallen more than 50% to its lowest level in 25 years, alarming government officials who have suggested that models predict that the falls could one day run dry.

“The pictures of the Victoria Falls are a stark reminder of what climate change is doing to our environment and our livelihood,” Zambian President Edgar Lungu said this month. “No doubt that developing countries like Zambia are the most impacted by climate change and the least able to afford its consequences.”

He has outlined steps his government is taking in an effort to head off the crisis. Zambia, he said, is promoting agricultural practices including the pursuit of drought-resistant food crops, construction of more-resilient roads and water-harvesting facilities, and strengthening the regulation of groundwater resources.

One of the key drivers changing southern Africa’s climate is accelerating deforestation, as growing populations are cutting into forests to sell timber to Asian and Western markets. The forests act like giant sponges that absorb carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that contributes to global warming.

Hotter and drier summers have accompanied the loss of forest cover, with temperatures expected to rise at twice the global average in the region across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and Mozambique. This year, southern Africa has seen its lowest rainfall since it was first recorded in 1981, according to the Botswana-based intergovernmental organization Southern African Development Community.

This week, South Africa’s Weather Service issued a flood warning for multiple provinces following unusually heavy rains, although abnormally hot weather continues in some parts of the country. 

“Southern Africa is one of the hot spots world-wide that is already experiencing extreme weather events. It may be the new normal,” said Felix Horne, an environmental researcher with Human Rights Watch. “What determines how much these events will impact communities is not only the event itself, drought in this case, but also the ability of marginalized communities to adapt.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo, which hosts the world’s second-largest rainforest, registered a 38% spike in lost forest cover in 2018, to more than 1.2 million acres, the second-largest area after Brazil, according to the World Resources Institute. If unchecked, the Congo basin forest could be completely wiped out by the end of the century, according to a recent study from the University of Maryland.

Zambia’s Forestry Department estimates that as many as 740,000 acres of trees are cut each year by illegal loggers, contributing to the rapid loss of forest cover.

Across the region, communities are struggling with the impact.

“We depend on these forests; if there’s no timber to sell, there are no other means of survival,” said Ngoma Mshinde, a timber trader in northern Zambia, who deals in logs from a tree known locally as mukula, an indigenous hardwood in southern Africa, which is highly sought after in Asian furniture markets.

Meanwhile, erratic rains are diminishing power generation at hydroelectric plants—which account for more than 80% of the region’s power—along the 1,550-mile Zambezi. Frequent power cuts have compelled people throughout the region to turn to charcoal, further aggravating deforestation and drought.

Kariba Lake, which hosts Zambia’s and Zimbabwe’s hydroelectric plants, is only 14% full, cutting power for some of the region’s largest copper and cobalt mines. In Mozambique, utilities in the cities of Maputo and Matola pump water to residents for just six hours a day.

In South Africa, the continent’s most-developed economy, authorities have reported a 50% drop in water levels at Vaal Dam, which supplies the commercial hub, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria. Cape Town residents are girding for another dry season after last year’s crisis, in which authorities in the city of four million limited water use to 13.2 gallons per person a day, preventing the city from running out.

“We need to accept that climate change is a reality and it continues to create imbalances in our rainfall patterns and seasonal changes,” Lindiwe Sisulu, South Africa’s water and sanitation minister, said this month.

The drought problem seems most acute in Zimbabwe, where the extreme weather comes amid a gathering economic emergency. In the capital, Harare, the water is cut for as many as 100 hours a week, meaning many people rely on community wells. This month, the Harare city council closed a building complex that houses its headquarters, citing lack of running water. 

The government has warned it may have to turn off the country’s largest dam, which provides power to more than two million people.

“The droughts are different now,” said Thandiwe Sibanda, a 32-year-old mother of two in Harare. She hasn’t had running water for months and now wakes up at 4 a.m. to fetch water from a community well. “Harare is now a village. We can’t tell the difference between someone living in the city and another staying in the rural areas.”

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 14th, 2019 at 6:11 am and is filed under Botswana, Zimbabwe.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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