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Insights into indigenous coping strategies to drought – WRC study 

A newly-completed Water Research Commission (WRC) study has investigated the traditional coping strategies for drought conditions used by farming communities in the Karoo area. The study findings come just in time to assist South Africa’s farming community with coping strategies related to the ongoing drought.

The emphasis of the study was on indigenous knowledge, which is defined as the large body of knowledge and skills that has been developed outside the formal educational system.  Indigenous knowledge is embedded in culture and is unique to a given location or society. It is the basis for decision-making of communities in food security, human and animal health, education and natural resource management.

Studies capturing local indigenous knowledge of the impacts, experiences, coping and adaptation strategies for past and current droughts have been lacking in South Africa. Indigenous people such as the Khoisan have been living and coping with extreme environmental conditions such as drought for a long time.

Dr Sylvester Mpandeli, the Research Manager responsible for Water Utilisation in Agriculture projects at the WRC said, “More attention has been placed on scientific knowledge, forgetting that local indigenous people have been living, surviving and adapting to extreme climates for a long time. There is available useful indigenous knowledge that needs to be captured. Scientific and indigenous knowledge need to be incorporated for effective drought risk adaptation”.

“The study captured coping strategies adopted by communities in the agricultural sector for dealing with past drought experiences. It also aimed to identify measures that would ensure the resilience of the agricultural sector to future droughts through upscaling good indigenous practices into drought preparedness planning,” said Dr Bongani Ncube, the project leader for the study based at the Centre for Water and Sanitation Research and Department of Agriculture at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

While sharing their perceptions with the research team, one of the Karoo farmers made statements like: “the Karoo is a desert”, “for us to farm in the Karoo we have to believe in God”, ”about 90% of our problems are solved by water” and we know our type of weather here”.

Drought indicators in the Karoo

Ncube further stressed that animal behaviour informed the Karoo farmers about whether rain is coming or not.  For example, the marsh terrapin (Pelomedusa subrufa) moving down the mountain indicates drought, and when it goes up it indicates rains. Game not breeding indicates impending drought. Snakes coming down from the mountains is an indication of drought.

Many interesting indicators were shared by the Karoo farmers. Other indicators are found in the environment and weather. For example, very dry conditions with no grass in the veld indicates drought. Water resources drying indicate the presence of drought conditions. Drying of fountains and low water tables in the boreholes indicate drought conditions. When animals die due to water and food shortages (including donkeys), that is evidence of drought.

The presence of the angulate tortoise (Chersina angulate) indicates thunderstorms. Blue cranes circling high up in the sky indicates approaching thunderstorms. If the rain flower produces flowers, the following day it will start to rain. A Karoo bustard/korhaan in the veld is an indication of rain coming in a few days. The presence of small insects indicates that it will rain in 14 days. Also, calves running and playing in the fields indicate it will rain in few days. Black ants collecting food to store indicates rain is coming in a few days.

Shortage of food for the animals and humans indicates drought. Appearance of certain plant species predicts drought. Very high day and night temperatures indicate drought. A very dry winter, and strong dusty winds indicate drought. Westerly winds indicate there will be drought. South-westerly winds indicate there will be rain during the rainy season. Easterly winds indicate rain.

Crop systems consisted of horticultural farms. Farmers had devised methods of conserving moisture such as using buried bottles to moisten the soil slowly, mulching and using shade-netting. They used manure and household (kitchen) garbage to improve soil fertility.

Drought coping strategies

Mixed croplivestock systems had developed many coping mechanisms and the farmers had also developed adaptation strategies that ensured the systems kept operating even during severe drought. Fruit orchards were saved by reducing irrigation levels, and changing to cultivation of high-value horticultural crops. Some farmers focused on single enterprises to keep the farms in operation. Other farmers had adapted by changing their systems from cropping to more drought-resistant livestock-only systems.

According to Ncube, livestock farmers were the most resilient to drought. Some of the strategies adopted by the farmers dated back centuries. Migration with animals to better grazing lands was one of the oldest coping mechanisms used by livestock farmers. Farmers also purchased lucerne from other farmers or far-off areas to feed their animals. Conserving grazing lands through long-term paddocking and rotating camps was another long-term strategy used. Some farmers also resorted to early marketing of livestock, de-stocking and leaving the breeding herd intact and also manipulating feeding strategies to conserve the herd. Long-term strategies included breeding for survival during drought, changing breeds, e.g. from Boer goats to more drought-resistant Angora goats, and changing systems to low-input ostrich or game farming. Livestock farmers also developed methods of conserving water through rainwater harvesting from mountain slopes, construction of stock dams for water storage and use of windmill-pumped boreholes. Building silt traps/sluits to prevent dam siltation and the construction of contours across slopes to conserve soil were other long-term strategies.

The identified coping and adaptation strategies adopted by farmers in the Karoo indicate systems that have evolved over a long period of time. Some traditional methods have now been replaced with modern, more efficient methods; for example, flood irrigation has been replaced with water-conserving drip irrigation.

Although science has provided new methods of predicting weather, farmers still use their own traditional methods concurrently with modern methods. Farmers also continue to use century-old methods of grazing management for soil and water conservation. Recent scientific methods are also used in conjunction with traditional methods. There is a need to integrate these systems to increase farmer resilience to drought in the Karoo.

For further reading download WRC Report No. 2084/1/15 from the WRC Knowledge Hub www.wrc.org.za


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