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Shifting Sands: Climate Change in the Kalahari

SOUTH AFRICA | Thursday, 17 December 2009 | Views [5053]

Even before the effects of climate change began to appear the Kalahari Desert was among the harshest regions in the world. Only the most specialized plants and animals are adapted to live in its scorching 45ºC heat. Its thousands of human inhabitants are equally hardy and resolute, and they are accustomed to dramatic seasonal changes such as gale-force winds and fierce thunderstorms. However, the people of the Kalahari are probably not prepared to cope with the unprecedented changes predicted from global climate change. Though hardy and resolute, they already struggle with shortages of water, which only runs at night and only when the temperamental electricity is working. 

Researcher David Thomas of the University of Oxford claims that climate change in the Kalahari may force people to give up their farming ways and return to hunting and gathering. As temperatures rise, what little water is available will evaporate more quickly, vegetation will die off and the desert will slowly take over formerly productive lands. This vicious cycle will increasingly threaten livelihoods based almost solely on farming and livestock herding. Although the indigenous San tribe once lived sustainably in the unforgiving southern African desert, much of their traditional knowledge and practices have been lost to centuries of colonization and structural oppression. Without such critical knowledge of the desert’s ecological processes, people here will be unable to adapt to increasingly volatile environmental conditions.

John is one of few San traditional trackers in the South African Kalahari and I have been working closely with him to build a school vegetable garden. He often points out species of birds, lizards, and invertebrates to me, including deadly scorpions. He recently lamented that he hasn’t seen some species in the past few years and notes that it may have been caused by changes in temperature and rainfall, and thus, soil conditions and plant diversity.

Though many people in the Kalahari have heard of climate change, few know of its potential implications for their livelihoods. Their primary focus is on daily survival. A focus on economic and industrial development at the national level, however, is getting South Africa into hot water on the international stage.

At the current climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, South Africa is considered an advanced developing country alongside Brazil, India, and China. Their main argument is that they have contributed few emissions in the past and should not be forced to cut emissions now at the expense of their economic development. They argue that the developed countries that have caused climate change must pay for it. Although this is a legally sound argument, their growing economies are based on high-emission industries and are quickly becoming some of the highest emitters in the world. Developed countries counter-argue that any emissions that they cut will simply be negated by unregulated emissions from countries like South Africa.

Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations in Copenhagen, it is certain that life will become increasingly difficult for the people of the Kalahari. In order to survive, they will have to begin adapting to their changing climate. I have been working with the community in Askham on some simple activities that may help them adapt. Along with John and another friend named Patrick, we’re managing the school vegetable garden, planting trees, testing home-made solar cookers, and developing drip irrigation systems to conserve water for home gardens. Perhaps the time will come when the San have to leave the Kalahari once and for all, but for now, they will continue to fight for survival.

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