Being resilient is about enduring life’s challenges with grace and learning to find lessons in both triumphs and defeats on the court of life…challenges provide us with insights…it’s what makes us winners – (Latham Thomas, 2014).
“Don’t just survive winter, thrive in it” advises an advertisement. This advert appears to be instructive in relationship to the threat on smallholder livelihoods caused by climate change. The takeaway message for smallholders is: Don’t just survive adversity in a changing climatic environment, thrive in it. Climate change effects are being felt today. Humans have modified the environment thereby ushering in a new geological epoch which has been termed the Anthropocene, a term that was popularised by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen (Stromberg, cited in Mabeza, 2014). Exploring ways of how to live with these effects is important for human development (Pelling, 2011). In other words building resilience among rural communities is key to sustaining their livelihoods.
Rainwater harvesting (RWH) offers a cost effective approach to helping smallholder farmers not only survive but thrive in variable environments. RWH by smallholder farmers is on its own not a silver bullet solution. RWH however, offers a complimentary role (premised on appreciation of local dynamics) to exogenous efforts’ quest to address the perennial food insecurity among smallholder farmers in the wake of climate variability (Mabeza, 2014: 10).
Variability in rainfall has dire effects on smallholder livelihoods. Most smallholder farmers are located in areas that are dry and have poor soils. Climate scenarios point to a bleak future in rain-fed agriculture in southern Africa because of projected decrease in rainfall amounts (Murwira et al., cited in Mabeza, 2014). Maize (the staple diet) production is likely to be negatively affected because rainfall variability is expected to increase worsening the already precarious position of smallholder farmers who have to contend with a multiple stressor environment. A major hurdle is to help poor resource farmers secure better livelihoods that are also sustainable from their “complex, diverse and risk-prone farming when normal agricultural research has so largely failed” (Chambers, 1989: 195). Global policy emphasis is mainly irrigation development in order to boost food production (Nicole et al, 2015). Whereas this is commendable in some contexts, there are limits to how far this can be expanded given that most agricultural activities by smallholder farmers are rain-fed (Nicol et al., 2015). Smallholder technologies have shown promise. RWH practices include pitting, homestead ponds, gelesha, stone bunds, tied/contour ridges, trench beds and diversion furrows . These are simple RWH technologies that are aimed at addressing impacts of climate change in southern Africa.
South Africa is no exception. Most parts of rural South Africa are susceptible to severe droughts which have warranted a multiplicity of responses to climate related risks. Impacts by climate change are projected to have adverse effects on agricultural activities according the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa (DEA, 2013). Future climate scenarios in South Africa project a “higher frequency of flooding and drought extremes”. Nicol et al., (2015) posit that during the last three to four decades, smallholder farmers have experienced weather-induced problems such as drought, prolonged dry spells, erratic rainfall, and floods. According to DEA:
Rainfall has shown high inter-annual variability, with smoothed rainfall showing amplitude of about300 mm, about the same as the national average. Annual rainfall trends are weak overall and non- significant, but there is a tendency towards a significant decrease in the number of rain days in almost all hydrological zones. This implies a tendency towards an increase in the intensity of rainfall events and increased dry spell duration (DEA Long Term Adaptation Scenarios, 2013: 3)
As already mentioned above, one response to this state of uncertainty might be innovative adaptive strategies that are aimed at harvesting water. RWH might be an ideal innovative adaptive strategy in semi-arid environments where according to Wilson (2010): “rain comes rapidly and leaves rapidly” leading to food shortages.
Meybeck et al., (2012) argue that the response to crises by governments and international donor organisations has been inadequate and resultantly, a new approach premised on building resilience promises in helping communities respond to stresses and shocks. Gonzalez’s advice is spot-on: With determination and perseverance, water harvesting approaches will help smallholders prevail in the wake of a changing climatic environment. Such approaches for managing rainfall variability (rainwater harvesting) offer hope to dryland smallholder farmers and will not only ensure that smallholders survive but that they thrive in the face of adversity.
By Chris Mabeza