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Drought in Namibia: Snapshot of the Future?

Namibia is facing what could be its most severe drought in thirty years. The immediate crisis is serious, but it underlines the importance of Namibia’s efforts to become climate-resilient.
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Bone dry. Dead Vlei, Sossusvlei, Namibia Naukluft National Park. Credit: Romulo Rejon

Namibia, the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, is currently facing its worst drought in 30 years.

In the Kunene region in the north, rain has not fallen for two years, and the UN recently estimated that 778,000 people – approximately one third of the population – are either moderately or severely food insecure. And this has had knock-on effects in the south of Angola, where an estimated 1.5 million people are also believed to be food insecure.

In Namibia, hospitals are admitting increasing numbers of people suffering from malnutrition – with one district hospital in the Ohangwena region reporting a 76% increase in paediatric malnutrition since March – and many groups are finding it difficult to maintain their ways of life.

To tackle these problems, the Namibian government has pledged $20 million in relief for the worst-affected households, and UNICEF is trying to raise $7.4 million to reach the 109,000 children under-five who are at risk of severe malnutrition.

So far, the government’s relief efforts have encountered various problems, which it has promised to iron out. However, even if the current crisis is overcome in the short-term, Namibia will remain vulnerable to such environmental crises unless concerted long-term efforts are also pursued effectively.

Consequences of climate change

One factor that could make Namibia increasingly prone to drought and extreme weather patterns is climate change. Though it is impossible to say to what extent the current drought is a consequence of global warming, President Hifikepunye Pohamba was quick to reference it when announcing the state of emergency in May. “It has now been established that climate change is here to stay and humanity must find ways and means of mitigating its effects”, he said.

Indeed, the vulnerability and adaptation assessment the Namibian government commissioned in 2008 outlines a number of worrying trends that could have significant effects on the country.

In terms of temperature the study found that over the last 40 years the frequency of days when it exceeds 35oC has increased, along with average maximum temperatures. The report also said that Namibia will continue to get warmer, with its most extreme prediction being an increase of 4°C by 2046.

As for rainfall, the report predicted that Namibia could experience shorter periods of more intensive rainfall as well as much more variability in its climate. This could lead to more severe and frequent droughts, but also to a higher likelihood of floods which can prove similarly devastating. In March 2011, for example, flooding in the Kalahari basin led to the displacement of 21,000 people and contributed to the spread of cholera.

Looking to the future

In the face of these impending challenges, some people are putting their hope in a recent finding. Last year, an aquifer – an underground layer of permeable rock that yields water – was discovered under Namibian soil. German and Namibian scientists mapping the aquifer estimate that it covers 15,000 square km and that it could provide enough drinking water to supply central-north Namibia for up to 400 years.

However, experts have also been quick to point out the many potential problems associated with extracting this water and insisted that the discovery is by no means a panacea for Namibia’s environmental challenges.

Indeed, regardless of the water the aquifer could yield, there are many things the Namibian government needs to do to prepare the country for environmental change. And promisingly there are indications that the Namibian government seems to recognise this.

It is helping to build a broader picture of climate change by engaging with the UN-backed Global Environmental Facility, a body set up to help countries with lower resources tackle problems associated with climate change. The Ministry for Environment and Tourism has articulated the need for greater investment in climate adaptation, particularly in rural settings. And region-specific Community Climate Adaption toolkits have been produced and translated into several languages, offering advice to communities. Furthermore there are promising signs of the government recognising that areas experience climate change differently and therefore need different solutions.

The Namibian government has thus signalled that it is prepared to take long-term measures and that it is looking ahead as well as addressing short-term concerns. But with one of the world’s most trying climates likely to get even more unpredictable and difficult to manage, the extent of what needs to be done to protect Namibians and their ways of life cannot be underestimated.

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