Building resilience of rural communities against climate change

Not a drop of water to drink

The Orange- Senque river basin is one of the most important river basins in southern Africa, powering the economies of at least 4 countries. With its origins in Lesotho, it encompasses half of South Africa, a quarter of Namibia and a significant portion of southern Botswana. The Orange river is crucial for the region. The upper reaches of the river is a major water supplier to the industrial hubs of South Africa, namely Johannesburg.

The middle reaches of the river is key for agricultural production especially grains, a staple crop in South Africa. The significance of this river is even much more pronounced in the semi-arid Northern Cape Province of South Africa, where most agricultural activities take place along the river bank.

Reliance on the river as a primary source of irrigation has been seriously threatened as a result of a changing climate, with a resultant significant reduction in water levels. This has, in turn, intensified the competition for scarce water between different water users. For example, the region is currently experiencing extreme drought conditions that have hampered rainfed agriculture, prompting the government to declare the region a disaster zone.

The stories emanating from the ground as a result of the drought are extremely sad. Many farms are closing down because the cost of operation has become prohibitive. Livestock are succumbing to the extreme heat, lack of water and inadequate pasture.

Impact of drought on vulnerable communities

The toll of the drought is not only impacting commercial farmers, but also the livelihoods of many rural folks and smallholder farmers in particular. In rural communities, the skills base is very low, so many members of the local communities are employed as labourers on farms while others manage their own small scale farming activities. However, due to the harsh conditions many of these local community members have been forced to abandon their livelihood activities, resulting in significant vulnerability in poor households.

Harnessing local capital

There is an urgent need to build the adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable communities, because extreme events such as droughts, will be exacerbated by climate change. The main question is, how do you build the resilience of highly vulnerable and under-resourced communities, with a poor skills base and often very isolated?

Based on our experience, the key opportunities for building resilience are based on developing a good understanding of the local context and using the principles of co-creation and co-learning to harness local resources. A key component of this process is understanding indigenous knowledge systems. For example, most vulnerable communities, have been exposed to some of these challenges before and have developed coping strategies to manage their situations. Such coping strategies may include post-harvest management and livelihood diversification.


Catalytic interventions

To ensure that vulnerable communities develop the adaptive capacity to respond to climate change, its often critical to implement catalytic interventions, such as awareness-raising, training on new farming and livelihood practices and to invest in the local economy.

This is what we will be doing over the next couple of months in selected communities in the Northern Cape Province (pictured left). Our interventions will focus on creating an enabling environment to unlock investments but at the local and landscape level. We will also build the capacity of local communities members on climate-smart practices so that they can adopt farming practices that improve productivity, supply nutritious food and bolster household incomes.