Responding to increasing water-scarcity and drought in South Africa

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Livestock drink from a drying river outside Utrecht, a small town in the northwest of KwaZulu-Natal, November 8, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

2015 has been labelled as the hottest year ever recorded and this past month of February had the highest mean global temperature (breaking January’s record) to date. This temperature increase is affecting different areas of the world in different ways. In South Africa, drought conditions are escalating. While in November last year the drought was being labeled the worst drought in 30 years, 4 months later it is being referred to as “the worst drought in a century.” This time-scale stretches beyond the bounds of individual memory and experience, placing us in an unknown and uncertain terrain and highlighting the need to draw on a diversity of resources to move forward.

In recent months I have been following the coverage of the drought in South Africa and how this crisis is being responded to by maize farming – the staple crop in the country. There has been much debate about the approaches, funds and means made available by the government to support farmers and those suffering the worst effects of the drought. Currently, articles in newspapers warn of how the drought threatens to tip South Africa into economic recession. The price of rising agricultural imports, of which a large part includes maize, will feed into inflation and increase already rising food prices and high levels of poverty. More importantly, since the middle of 2015, South Africa (usually a net exporter of grains) has been forced to begin importing maize from neighboring countries that are also suffering from drought.

The drought, which is affecting 5 provinces, is hitting particularly hard in the province where my research is based and maize is grown extensively by small-scale farmers. In fact, small-scale farmers are likely to be the worst affected by changes in climate due to a lack of resources. Given this, drought has emerged as an important theme within the Agri/Cultures research project here in South Africa. It seems increasingly relevant to look at how water scarcity and drought is experienced and related to within different cultures or systems of agriculture and socio-ecological relationships. What kind of solutions and ideas concerning the crisis of drought are being put forward? How do these reflect (or not) dominant agricultural discourses?

Strategies for climate adaptation in South Africa have to date “mainly centered on crop improvement of a limited set of major crops” through crop breeding and genetic modification (the development and release of new drought resistant varieties in South Africa was discussed in some detail in a previous post). However, there is also a quieter but growing interest in the use of indigenous crops as a response strategy in the face of drying climatic conditions. This week the South African Water Research Commission (WRC) put out a press release about a short-term study they are conducting on drought-tolerant indigenous and traditional crops. Recognising that these increasingly underutilised crops (often termed Neglected and Underutilised Crop Species (NUCS)) urgently need to be investigated as part of the solution to providing a food ‘secure’ future.

The director of the WRC project explains that “The agricultural landscape of South Africa in many ways reflects the dominance of modern crops that originated from outside of Africa. Their rise has led to a decline in cultivation and knowledge about indigenous crops…The complexity of the problem posed by water scarcity, climate variability and change, population growth, and changing lifestyles requires unique solutions. Indigenous crops have the potential to fill this gap.”

The executive manager of the WRC envisions that this research will “propel these indigenous crops from the peripheries of subsistence agriculture to the promise of commercial agriculture, through scientific research”. It is interesting that here we see commercial agriculture looking to marginalized agri/cultural practices as sources of innovation. Within the Agri/Cultures Project I hope to explore how the crisis of water scarcity is being approached and experience within different systems of agri/culture and how it is forcing the agriculture industry to rethink relationships with nature and the importance of biological diversity and diversity of knowledge.

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This photograph was taken by Christopher Mabeza and is part of his article titled Metaphors for climate adaptation from Zimbabwe: Zephaniah Phiri Maseko and the marriage of water and soil” in the Book Contested Ecologies. Here Mbeza explores how the well known farmer Zephaniah Phiri Maseko’s relationship with water is an integral part of the agro-ecological systems he creates on his land in Zimbabwe. His work is an inspiring example of the importance of exploring different systems of agriculture. The book is freely available online:

Reflections on Rain – maize seed systems in a time of drought



silo reflected in a rain puddle, source:

At this time of year in the summer rainfall regions of South Africa, maize should be a budding crop, however this is not the case this season for many large and small-scale maize farmers. Heavy summer rains, which are expected from September to October have not fallen yet and as a result, South Africa is currently experiencing the worst drought since 1982. The news over the last few weeks has been full of articles concerning the looming drought and images of dry maize stalks and cracking soils.

Five of the nine provinces in South Africa have in recent weeks been declared drought disaster areas. These include South Africa’s key maize growing areas; North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State.

The lack of rainfall, combined with dust storms, fires and soil degradation has led to a recent ‘mass exodus’ of farmers from parts of the Free State. The Free State is responsible for 44% of South Africa’s maize production. Following a reduced harvest last year, it is expected that this will fall again this year. While in the past weeks some rain has fallen, forecasts warn that it would take a lot more rain to alleviate the current drought situation in the affected provinces.

scorched maize fields

dry maize fields, Source:

In recent weeks it has been confirmed that my project here in South Africa will focus on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Here I will be tracing traditional, hybrid and GM maize seed systems which can all be found in a relatively small geographical area. I will be traveling to KZN in January for the first time to meet the NGO BioWatch that works in the Upongolo Municipality with farmers who are growing traditional maize. I will also be visiting the Hlabisa Municipality where small-scale framers are using both Hybrid and GM maize seed to see if I can potentially work in this area too.

Since both of these areas are currently experiencing drought conditions, it is likely that much of the conversation will concern relationships with rain. In south Africa, small-scale maize farming is for the most part rainfed agriculture and thus is likely to be severely affected. It is within this context that drought resistant maize varieties (both GM and non-GM) are positioned as solutions to improving food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers.

In this post I want to reflect on maize and drought in South Africa in light of the current conditions and the recent authorization of new drought-tolerant maize MON 87460. In December 2014 the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) launched 2 types of conventional drought-tolerant maize hybrid varieties. On June 19th, this year, the GM maize MON 87460, licensed from Monsanto to the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project (WEMA) was authorized for general release in South Africa.  This approval means that Monsanto can now sell GM maize seed MON87460, to farmers in South Africa for cultivation. WEMA was founded in 2008 as a partnership between the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto to develop drought tolerant maize varieties for small-scale framers in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda). In South Africa the ARC is WEMA’s partner organization.

Recently, Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze, the Country Coordinator of the WEMA project in South Africa, called the authourization of MON 87460 “a significant step forward” in terms of assisting small-scale farmers and fighting food shortages. The ARC believes that this new trait can contribute to expanding arable land. The often quoted figure is that only 13% of South Africa’s landmass is agriculturally viable.

The announcement of the authorization of MON 87460 has been met by much resistance from civil society organisations and NGOs. According to La Via Campesina, non-governmental and farmer organizations from South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda strongly condemn the go-ahead issued by South African authorities to release MON 87460 for cultivation. The African Centre for Biosafety (ACBio) lodged an appeal on 7th August 2015 to the Agriculture, Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Senzeni Zokwana. The ACBio advocate for food sovereignty and have outlined their concerns in their appeal.  They illustrate that decision making is not done thoroughly and transparently and often summarizes claims made by Monsanto without investigating them thoroughly enough. They are concerned about the introduction of new proteins / genetic material into human and animal feed and the potential impact on pollinators. Furthermore, they query the effectiveness of the ‘drought-tolerance’ of this trait in South Africa, given a lack of peer reviewed studies exploring this. The ACBio is also concerned about the potential social-economic impacts on small-scale farmers as recent studies caution that previous projects which encouraged small-scale farmers to plant GM seed led to a number of difficulties for those farmers (a potential topic to explore in a future post).

Given the current reality of drought and its effect on maize in South Africa, and the likelihood that this may become an increasing concern in years to come, it is important to consider relationships with rain for small-scale farmers. While creating more drought-resistant varieties is posed as a solution by some, others strongly disagree that this is the right approach for small-holder agriculture. Some rather believe that solutions lie in boosting food yields through crop diversity and supporting agro-ecological systems. For a future post i would like to explore these viewpoints in more detail.