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With climate change already impacting our world, scientists warn that we will have to brace ourselves for more extreme weather events – be it floods or droughts. With this in mind, we asked some of our people in the field to tell us what their work has been like during the exceptionally wet summer of 2022/23.
For the past three summers, people living in the eastern areas of South Africa have experienced heavy rains. This is down to the La Niña weather phenomenon (meaning ‘little girl’ in Spanish) which occurs over the Pacific Ocean and impacts global weather patterns. One of these impacts is above-average rainfall for parts of South Africa, and what has made this year unusual is it’s been the third La Niña in a row.
Weather forecasters now say that La Niña is abating and may soon be replaced by an El Niño weather pattern (meaning ‘little boy’). An El Niño pattern heralds drier, hotter times and could be a harbinger of a drought to come.
The jury is still out on what will happen to our increasingly erratic weather patterns, nevertheless, the past season has created enormous difficulties for many of our staff, NGO partners and project participants.
On 23 March 2023, torrential rains brought the coastal town of Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape to a standstill as flood waters poured through for the second time within a year.
Just a few days before, WWF project coordinator Monalisa Mabandla had completed a week-long workshop with small-scale fishers in the area. So, when the news broke, she immediately reached out to find out how they had been affected.
She says: “Unfortunately the flooding damaged infrastructure which made it impossible for us to communicate. When we finally managed to get hold of the fishers, most of them said they were still clearing flood water from their homes.”
Fortunately, there were no injuries or fatalities, but the flooding impacted their livelihoods as they struggled to access fishing spots (some 18 bridges were reportedly badly damaged in the area) and the flood waters turned the sea murky and unconducive for fishing.
In one instance, a landslide obstructed the pathway that the fishers from the village of Cwebeni ordinarily used to get to their fishing spots.
She recalls, “We recently went on a trip with the fishermen to some of their favourite fishing spots; the hike is strenuous and slippery even on a dry day. The wet ground makes it even more dangerous, but they are forced to take the risk because they must feed their families. The unfortunate reality was that even if they did catch something, they would likely struggle to sell it because buyers were unable to access or would avoid the area due to flooding.”
Lumko Mboyi, Project Coordinator for the Regenerative Wool Project with WWF South Africa, has been talking to farmers in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg project area, some of whom have told him that this has been the wettest year in living memory. In one area, they reported receiving a quarter of their annual rainfall in a week. This is where Lumko too nearly came unstuck visiting a project site in the Barkly’s Pass area of the Eastern Cape Highlands.
Lumko explains: “I was heading off to take supplies to a team clearing invasive alien plants and thought it should be OK because we’d had good sun for a day or two. What didn’t click in my mind was that after the heavy rain of the past week, the sun would not fix everything.
“Halfway to the farm, we came to this section where a spring was running into the road but, because the mud was crusted over, we decided to drive through. Instead, we just sank in up to the vehicle’s belly. Luckily, we had recovery equipment with us and so were able to put stones and traction pads down to get out. The bakkie actually grabbed onto those and rescued itself!”
Lumko reports that other farmers in the area have been losing crops to waterlogged fields and have struggled with getting supplies out and doing stock counts. They have also seen increasing foot rot among their sheep which causes the animals to lose condition which, in turn, affects wool production and quality.
“With the recent increase in intense rainfall events, presumed to be a consequence of increased atmospheric energy from warming global temperatures, we have seen and experienced more difficulties. Farm and district roads are flooded and washing away; and the long-term impacts on project operations and farm operations is very negative as there are no alternative routes for accessing sites,” he says.
On the edge of the Kruger National Park, 74 Environmental Monitors from nearby communities help to keep the fences in shape as part of the Kruger’s Fence Stewardship programme which WWF has supported through its Khetha Project.
The monitors patrol the western boundary fence line to ensure the safety of both people and wildlife. They monitor, collect data and report to park management any issues relating to the status of the fence, signs of illegal incursions, escaped wild animals or domestic animals inside the park, snares, alien invasive plant species or waste. Together with Tradesman Aids from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development they repair fences.
But this summer wasn’t easy.
Environmental Monitor Vincent Sithole, who works in the Numbi Gate to Nyongani Bridge section, summed it up: “Mud would stick on the bottoms of the soles of our boots making it difficult to walk. Sometimes we had to use the (active) railway line that runs along the fence line to escape the muddy surfaces and puddles on the patrol road. When it rains it is also difficult to do tracking since tracks and signs are washed by stormwater and winds.”
Reports from several monitors working across the region echoed Vincent’s report with descriptions of flooded bridges, muddy paths and impassable roads for their bicycles.
Luyanda Njanjala is the Small Holder Farmer Programme Manager with WWF South Africa. In December last year, he was visiting the Bergville area in the Northern Drakensberg where a group of women were working together on a minimum tillage project, as part of an agroecology project funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust in the last couple of years.
The sun was shining and the women were helping each other to plant maize by hand, seed by seed, without using tractors or machinery, intercropping it with sunflowers and beans. They were looking forward to a good harvest to get them and their animals through the next winter.
And then a severe hailstorm struck in February.
“When I saw that picture of the hail damage after the February storm, I was in shock,” he says.
As a result of the flash storm, the maize and sunflowers the women rely on to feed their livestock and chickens were destroyed and they had to ask for help from the Mahlathini Development Foundation, the implementing NGO in this local agroecology project. Their needs included feed for their animals and shade netting to protect their crops, not only from hail but also from the severe frost to come.
“The idea behind these agroecology projects is to create food security at a household level and to generate a bit of surplus if possible. In the past we would organise market days at the end of the month to sell the surplus produce but, because of this severe storm, it’s unlikely that there will be any market days in this area in the foreseeable future,” says Luyanda.
Across the board, the heavy rains have caused difficulties. In some villages in nearby Winterton and Bergville, floods have washed away the topsoil and its valuable nutrients, denuding the soil and making it less suitable for planting essential food crops.
What’s clear is that with a changing climate, people are going to have to be better prepared – not only for what is coming – but also for the changes needed to slow down the speed at which our planet is heating up!