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Drought reality

Drought reality

SPONTANEOUS mass mobilisation by disaster stricken communities – only bound by determination to survive the devastating drought that continuous to tighten its grip on Namibia and Southern Angola – is underway, mostly unseen and under reported from administrative and political powers headquartered in regional government, civil society organisations and agencies of the state.

Ordinary citizens in die farming hinterland of the vast and drought stricken Namibia emerge daily as the real heroes in the front line of communities united in a civil fight back against a life threatening drought that was declared a National State of Emergency by the President, Hage Geingob.

While governors and ministries are working out modalities and details of the Government Drought Aid Rescue plan of nearly N$600 million that is administered by the Office of the Prime Minister, Saraah Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, various innovative initiatives are underway, uniting the private sector, destitute communities, communal farmers and Namibia’s flourishing tourism Industry in extending a helping hand in the spirit of nationhood.

The rallying of passionate commercial, communal, resettlement and subsistence farmers and their dependants representing an estimated close to a million Namibians already include fundraising campaigns for cattle fodder, manual digging of wells, transport of water to households run by the elderly and children and lodges in the devastated scenery that in cruelty maintains its beauty and vast openness of its plains characterised by the winds of freedom and spirit of pride of the Namibian farmer.

Drought RealityBarren parts of the Northern Frontier with Angola and the harsh desert landscape of Kunene is littered by herders trying to save what is left of a decimated stock that succumbed to thirst at drying pans and wells as they find their way around the skeletons of those that could not be saved.

Grandmothers, grandfathers and their grandchildren are digging community wells in grounds that are as hard as cement after five of the seven years without rain sucked it dry of all moisture. An additional challenge is that water is hiding deeper under the surface than before and the moisture that could keep some of the hardest vegetation alive disappeared.

With the exception of cattle herders, many of them from neighbouring Angola, the absence of able bodied young men is conspicuous, with the elderly women and men and even toddlers pitching in with empty vessels to dig for life giving water.

The perfect storm of climate change and the everlasting hope for rain that never came is now a race towards a human and animal catastrophe – never experienced and recorded before in Namibia.

In large parts of the subsistence crop farming areas, late rains resulted in a double blow for the farmers. Except for small yields of the mahango staple, there was also not stubble left from the failed yield that was also used as fodder for cattle in difficult times. In a conspiracy of all the gods of disaster, irrigation schemes were attacked by Commando worms and added to the devastation.

Indications and fears is that Namibian agriculture will be set back for years and famous brands like beef and karakul will have to start from scratch.

The reputation of the internationally renowned quality beef production and the unique Swakara pelt is hovering on disastrous collapse and might take many years to regain.

In a more worrying development, gigantic cattle herds from the Namibian Northern Frontiers are caught in a double drought trap as the Angolan grazing grounds were they go for rescue are also struck by the worst drought in that country’s history. Cattle cannot turn back to the depleted grazing in Namibia and now have to push forward and deeper into Angola towards far flung lands of Cuvelai and Cassinga, where they settle fees with cattle from already depleted herds.

Reports are received that traditional weddings are postponed in the north due to a lack of cattle that plays an important role in everyday life, including funerals and baptisms.

Cattle from Opuwo, Okangwati and Epupa are grazing in Chama at high transport costs, while herds of goats are shepherded more than 300 kilometres if messages are received of some grazing hope elsewhere.

In the doom of a disastrous drought that was already looming in the last two to three years, Namibian farmers are now pushed over the brink into a State of Emergency, but the hardy and resilient Namibian subsistence-, communal-, resettlement- and commercial farming communities and their children, are the heroes in the fight for daily survival with all odds stacked and raised against them.

Not only has the drought already claimed thousands of cattle, sheep, goats and wildlife countrywide, but the skeletons of wild animals at old drying pans and fountains are a grim warning for what is yet to come with first rains still months away.

City dwellers and those in towns, as well as the heartbeat of the producers on irrigation schemes in the interior, are facing the unimaginable sight of Namibia’s biggest dam, Hardap, becoming a dust bowl before the next inflow is expected at the end of the year at the earliest, with only 22% water currently, while most other dams are at much lower levels than last year. With a loss of 2% per month, the current volume should last for eleven months if early rains don’t come. International forecasters are pessimistic about the possibility for Southern Africa.

For the first time in more than a hundred years, since the famine of 1915, the proud record of the Namibian government preventing any Namibian dying of hunger seems under threat.

A stark and dark picture of the effects of the current drought emerged after an Informanté investigation, launched during the Omagongo near Okahao and extending mainly off the beaten track of the North and North-western communities of Opuwo, Epupa, Sesfontein, Anker, Erwee, Kamanjab, Outjo and Khorixas where an absence of cattle, as well as a non-existence of grazing spots, cannot be ignored.

Hundreds of kilometres of the Namibian landscape is a water- and grazing wasteland, where farmers are seen trekking with their last goats or cattle in order to save some of their depleted livelihood.

The effects of the drought and the poor living conditions of communities are amplified by bad to non-existent communication lines, remote and nearly unreachable communities in the Kunene bad lands in the inaccessible Zebra- and Hartman mountains and the Marienfluss that are laid to waste by cattle congregations around water points that have sunk into what was previously treated as emergency grazing, but became permanent cattle posts as farmers were forced ever westwards to save their herds.

Ingenious communication initiatives were seen where the Ovahimba scale high trees for an MTC-signal, with the person on the ground placing a mobile phone with a written message in a tin with a string that is pulled up by the person on top of the tree to press ‘send’.

Wildlife, which was initially supposed to be the main beneficiaries of new water points, are pushed into the dunes of the pristine and famous Skeleton Coast. Oryx, ostrich, zebra and springbok only occasionally come down to the water points where underground water levels are drastically decreasing due to the fact that for at least three years these were not replenished by rain.

In the Northwest, subsistence communities must guard water points from elephants that, in their search for water, destroy dams and installations to get to water.

Repair of such installations takes weeks, if not months, due to administrative stumbling blocks and red tape and difficulty to report to absent councillors.

The Kunene Region is dotted by nomads – with small two-men tents – that are traversing the hostile region from Sesfontein to the Epupa Falls to save what is left of already decimated flocks.

The humble donkey that was once regarded as a traffic menace, is now a life saver and water carrier over vast distances, while goats are prized for their milk in the absence of milk from cows that have either been moved or are not producing enough and steady supplies of milk due to the lack of grazing and feed.

Omahare is the staple diet of the Ovahimba and is regarded in some communities as more important than meat.


Hundreds of thousands of families are staring down the barrel of thirst due to the lack of water in pans that previously lasted throughout the year.

Thousands of cattle are dying in the Oponono area where a huge body of water has turned into brine and is not fit for human nor animal consumption. In Sesfontein, amongst three of the strongest fountains from which water is drawn for different utilization, a water reservoir that was erected two years ago at the cost of N$2 million stands idle because the pipes  that must connect an engine to pump the water over a distance of less than 10 metres were never connected. One of the fountains cannot be used, because animals trampled in it and blocked the flow that is needed for the pipes. Community members took it on themselves to clean it every now and then to open the fountains every second day.

Due to the drought, herds of cattle in all northern regions as far as Oshikoto and Oukwanyama find themselves in a death trap because of the high salt content at water points since there was no new inflow from the Cuvelai basin and nothing is expected soon either. Community pipes are closed due to non-payment or damage that was not attended to by the responsible ministries.

The digging of deeper and wider pits – by hand with pick and shovel of combined homesteads – is underway in various areas in a desperate attempt to search for water. It is especially noticeable that the manual efforts are one of an organised community fighting back, while the contractors who possess heavy equipment that were vigorously deployed in the sand pit disaster are shining in their absence.

Community members said that contractors were waiting for the government to appoint them and maybe then the pits will be dug again, but at exorbitant and inflated prices. Therefore, they rather take their destiny into their own hands as they cannot wait for the official programmes to start.

“It is better to rely on sweat and a homemade shovel, than to wait for the generosity of a tenderpreneur,” an elder remarked.

The hard and often ignored truth is that homesteads stretch over hundreds of kilometres in communal areas and are only occupied by elderly mothers and grandmothers taking care of up to 15 grandchildren and making their struggle for survival much harder.

Although some water points are available, some of the older residents and smaller children do not possess the strength to carry the water that is needed in their households. In such cases, the transport of water must be paid for which makes life even more expensive in households that are already pressured by hunger.

The northern frontier, which was usually a safety net for subsistence cattle farmers, is even more exposed after the governor of the Cunene province of Angola, Vigilio Tyova, announced the severest drought in recent memory. Namibians have used the Oshimolo grazing area as emergency grazing but now must trek even more northward.

Farmers from the North Western district of Namibia have moved cattle to Cahama where grazing fields are also collapsing. At a fee of ten cattle, bigger cattle owners are found grazing in the Zambezi area, while some trekked to Cahama.

Farmers from Ondonga and Oukwanyama have sent cattle to areas in southern Angola bordering the Kavango and further north to Cassinga and Cuvelai where they hope to benefit from early Angolan rains in August and September.

Many rural schools in southern Angola have already closed due to a lack of drinking water.

Last week, Angolan President, Joao Lourenco, visited Ondjiva and announced a N$2.8 billion rescue plan over four years to start with the building of dams and canals to solve the “problem once and for all.”

The United Nations estimates that N$1.4 billion will be needed for 23-million people in southern Africa in need of humanitarian assistance due to the drought.

Commercial farming:

Commercial farmers turned to innovation and diversification to rescue what remains of devastated farming operations. De-bushing and charcoal production takes advantage of the drought, while some fodder is developed from the softer branches of Swarthaak to be used as cattle feed. However, illegal charcoal production and exports for packing at South African facilities for the export market is intervening in the full potential of charcoal production that can improve rangeland and increase income with additional employment opportunities.

In the communal areas, riverbeds and Omurambas are swept for Camelthorn and prosopis pods that are sold for their high nutritional value. Women next to the B-1 highway are selling grass at N$20 a bundle and farmers buy it up and stockpile it until there is enough to warrant the transport cost. In most areas where cattle are fed, this serves as one meal a day.

According to NAU, it is evident that the available vegetation cannot support Namibia’s livestock because the condition of 92% of all hectares is below normal, while a staggering 64% of all land is in an unfavourable condition less than 20% of the norm.

Corresponding statistics show that it is the fifth year of the last seven with drought conditions.

Livestock is dying of thirst and starvation and producer prices have decreased.

Communal farmers:

According to agricultural records, communal farming is the backbone of the agriculture industry and own 50% of the livestock south of the veterinary cordon fence. These farmers will suffer the most as they had to increase marketing of their livestock, but in return, this increase in cow marketing reduces the future reproductive capacity of Namibia’s total production and is sold at a low cost.

The Namibian Agricultural Union (NAU) says the poor body composition of cattle due to the drought has led to the collapse of auction prices and is expected to hit communal farmers the hardest because a large number solely depend on agriculture to survive.

A summary of horticulture and agronomy resulted in crop failure of rainfall- dependent maize production. Dairy farmers are in a devastating position due to the increase in feed prices and the decline in dam water levels of especially the Hardap dam scheme where Lucerne is produced.

The poultry industries are battling high feed prices and cheap imports from countries like Brazil, while the Swakara and Karakul producers are now forced to sell breeding herds of the most famous and unique Namibian brand, at one stage referred to as Namibia’s black gold.

A lack of grazing land has increased human-wildlife-conflict and elephants are invading settlements and destroying water installations in search for water.  Holes in the fences created by the giants of the forest are opening up grazing for cattle in the national parks and cross border into Botswana where the risk of foot and mouth disease and anthrax is ever present.

While the Namibian government announced various interventions to fight hunger and thirst and the ill effects of drought, Namibians in the outlying areas and farming communities are left to battle the drought.

Some of Namibia’s biggest corporates donated millions of dollars to various initiatives to supply farmers with fodder and other assistance.

To add to Namibia’s woes, the three most important rivers, the Zambezi, Kunene and Okavango rivers, are at their lowest levels ever, indicating an even bigger disaster that befell the catchment areas in Zambia, Angola, Lesotho and South Africa.

Effects of additional funding to rescue and to maintain some of the possible production processes is now Namibia’s biggest challenge.

It is estimated that more than half of the Namibian population will directly be affected by the drought towards October.

Cabinet already endorsed the Presidential emergency plan under the Office of the Prime Minister to the tune of N$572 million to all communities and all fourteen regions of the country.

State agencies and government is putting the final touches on emergency relief for man and beast, while the search is on to find more money as the contracted economy cannot by any stretch of the imagination fund the rescue operation alone.

While the clock is ticking towards the next rainy season and possibility of an even greater adversity, Namibians are uniting far from the glare of city lights in a fierce fight for survival that they are destined to win.

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