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Life in Namaqualand has always been hard but changing weather patterns are making it even more challenging for the people of the Kamiesberg in the Northern Cape.
Over a month ago, at that magical time of the year when the semi-desert landscapes of Namaqualand usually undergo an astonishing transformation, I went on a road trip with one of my colleagues to visit the small community of Nourivier in Kamiesberg, about 100 km south of Springbok in the Northern Cape.
Travelling from a wintry Cape Town, we were well prepared to freeze in the Northern Cape, but to our surprise the weather was warmer than anticipated which was even more exciting for us.
The beautiful granite Kamiesberg mountains around us showed that we were indeed in another part of the country. Kamieskroon which means “Kamies’ crown” and Boesmanskop – meaning “bushman’s head” are the names of some of the mountains we saw.
As it was the beginning of spring, it was incredible to see the wild flowers in their explosion of colour. But, it was also evident that this part of the country is in the grips of a devastating drought. Some areas that locals say are usually green in spring looked dry and desolate.
During our visit, we spoke to Mariana Beukes, Koos Brandt and Rosy Fortuin, three commonage farmers from Nourivier who shared stories of how drought and changing weather patterns have affected their farming activities over the years.
“Our town is named after a river called Nourivier, which means “narrow river” in English. This river and two others (Spoegrivier and Tweerivier) used to come down during winter rains. This made it possible to cultivate vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, butternut and watermelon. And everyone in the area grew winter wheat. But since the drought began, the rivers have stopped running”, Rosy told me.
She also recalled a time when natural springs were plentiful and when there was no need to drill boreholes and use windmills to find groundwater. Now even the groundwater that they have always depended on is decreasing.
For the past five years, this community has been struggling with a drought that has held large parts of the Northern Cape in its unrelenting grip.
What is even more worrying is that temperatures are also becoming hotter. Climate scientists have found that the minimum temperatures in the Namaqualand region have increased by 1.4°C, while maximum temperatures have increased by 1.1°C over the past century.
Nowadays, only about five households have vegetable gardens in Nourivier. As there are water shortages, it requires grim determination, dedication and commitment to keep these gardens going. Mariana told me that she waters her garden early in the morning, before the sun comes out, and has to cover the vegetables for some part of the day to minimise evaporation. She does this almost every day for different vegetables.
She showed me some of the vegetables that were already growing above the ground. It was wonderful to see how healthy they looked, considering the climate in the region, and the fact that the only form of fertiliser she uses is sheep droppings.
Compounding the impact of the ongoing drought is overgrazing. By allowing animals to graze in one area over and over again, soil erosion increases and further denudes the soil until there is little chance of the vegetation recovering. This makes it even more difficult for the farmers to adapt to more prolonged droughts which are likely to come with climate change.
The farmers say that there used to be plenty of palatable plants which provided grazing for their livestock (mostly goats and sheep) and small antelope-like grey duiker and steenbok. But as the plant cover has decreased, the buck have disappeared and predators such as jackal and caracal have turned to their livestock for survival.
For many years, the Kamiesberg farmers had no access to farming extension services and had limited access to skills and knowledge about sustainable farming.
But now Nourivier is one of four communities in this area who are participating in a project funded by WWF South Africa (via the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust) and carried out by Conservation South Africa (CSA). The others are Leliefontein, Spoegrivier and Kharkams.
Through this project, 90 communal farmers have voluntarily signed biodiversity stewardship agreements and committed to using more sustainable farming methods for their own benefit and to help the land recover. Since this part of the Kamiesberg is municipal land, CSA also works in partnership with the local authority.
These farmers receive training and mentorship that helps them improve their farming methods, and to develop greater resilience in the face of climate change and its impacts.
Koos, Rosy and Mariana say that they have learnt a lot from the training and incentives they have received, since the stewardship work began in 2017. Some of the land has recovered and their livestock is in good health, and they get better prices when selling their livestock, which improves their daily lives.
Despite the fact that farmers alone can’t stop the climate impacts or the drought from happening, they are doing their utmost to better their lives and to survive in the harsh landscape they call home.
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