As the dust settles on the Limpopo River
Chapita Ramovha remembers the days when the Limpopo River lapped at the foot of his village in south Zimbabwe. He says that back then residents of Makakavhule village had to build high walls to protect their homes from flooding. “The Limpopo River was a marvel to watch, a beauty of nature, a source of food and income for us who lived along it,” the subsistence farmer recalls. But now, when he looks out across the landscape, he sees only a vast, sandy plateau that is devoid of natural life. “Dust,” laments Ramovha, who has lived here since 1942. “It is nothing but a dust river.”
Previously, agriculture and tourism flourished here along the Limpopo River. The area was well known for its beautiful lakes and vast fields, which produce the local agricultural yield. “But that livelihood is now being threatened by a severe water shortage that dramatically illustrates a broader regional crisis,” Ramovha says. The Limpopo River Basin is one of the most water stressed and, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, extreme droughts occur in the basin every 10 to 20 years.
The basin has a catchment area of around 413,000 km² that covers four countries – Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe – affecting a combined population of 14 million people, most of whom are subsistence farmers. About 244,000 hectares are under irrigation and an estimated 234,000 hectares are under crop production here, while 1.7 million hectares are used for pasture. However, due to bad environmental management, only craggy stumps of trees line the riverbank. People have cut down the trees that once used to create jagged coves along the river, which has long been home to crabs, fish and wild animals. “But at the few water holes on this part of the river you can hardly catch a frog. The river is gone, siltation has taken over. The rains are no longer reliable. They come late and sometimes don’t come at all,” Ramovha says.
He says the daily temperatures have increased substantially within the region and have killed many of the catchment’s once-lush grass beds, depriving livestock and game of their natural feed and habitat. Timothy Chauke, a farmer and a contracted field research assistant for the Agriculture Research Council’s Limpopo Basin project on data gathering, says the drought has become the most common and devastating of all environmental issues affecting the basin. Chauke, who is a livestock and crop farmer, says the impact is being felt in economic, social and environmental terms here. “Variable and erratic rainfall means that the rainy season often does not start when expected and can be episodic, with an entire season’s rainfall occurring in the space of a few days.”
He says over the years he has seen reduced grazing quality and crop yields, and this has resulted in a decline in the quality of living and income. “Food insecurity is now high. Cases of malnutrition and famine are on the increase. My farm productivity has been reduced from five tonnes per hectare of maize to less than three. Our natural environment has been destroyed, and as a result this is affecting productivity,” Chauke says. He adds that his input cost has also increased over the years.
Most of the farmers IPS interviewed along the Limpopo River say the water levels have drastically gone down as a result of a rise in daytime temperatures. During what is meant to be the rainy season in the area, drought is killing off the crops. The resultant dust and sandstorms have increased soil erosion and air pollution, while reducing soil productivity. “We are faced with poor soils and limited water resources. Most of the rivers that feed the Limpopo are able to provide water only for short periods of time each year,” Chauke says.
Pollution and competition for water in areas along the river create significant stress on the available resources. Poverty is widespread and people are extremely vulnerable to the effects of drought or crop failure here. Each of the 24 tributaries that feed the basin has communities with an average annual per capita income of less than 200 dollars. Starvation and malnutrition have become common. About one million people in the basin currently rely on food aid.
Addressing the Third International Forum on Water and Food in December in South Africa, Dr. Simon Cook, a scientist with the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture and head of CIGAR’s Challenge Programme for Water and Food (CPWF) Basin Focal Projects, said climate change is expected to exacerbate Africa’s struggles with strained water resources and food security. Cook says research confirms that rising global temperatures are expected to increase flooding in some areas, cause a decline in agricultural production, threaten biodiversity and the productivity of natural resources, increase the range of vector-borne and waterborne diseases, and exacerbate desertification. As part of a five-year global research project, scientists from the CPWF examined the potential effects of higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns caused by climate change, on, among others, the continent’s five river basins. In the process, they say, some unsettling scenarios have emerged for parts of Africa.
During a telephone interview with IPS, Cook says of concern are the projected changes in the Limpopo Basin, which include rising temperatures and a decline in rainfall. Cook says there is a need for researchers to ask whether current agriculture development strategies in the Limpopo, which are predicated according to current levels of water availability, are in fact realistic for a future that may present new challenges and different opportunities.
In a recent press statement CPWF ‘s director of the Water and Food programme, Alain Vidal, says the new insights regarding the effect of climate change on river basins may indicate a need to revisit assumptions about water availability. Vidal says the Limpopo River, like many rivers around the world, is heavily affected by higher global temperatures. “In some parts of the Limpopo even widespread adoption of innovations like drip irrigation may not be enough to overcome the negative effects of climate change on water availability,” Vidal adds. “But in other parts, investments in rain-fed agriculture such as rainwater harvesting, sand pits and small reservoirs might be better placed, as there could be sufficient rainfall for innovative strategies to boost production. The key is to obtain the data needed to make an informed decision.”
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