I arrived in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, five weeks ago. In the days prior, I had read up on this southwestern African country and its tourist sites, learned about the wildlife conservation successes it has achieved since independence in 1990, and was even reminded that this was where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose to give birth to their first child. But on my first night here, I was confronted with a different side of Namibia that isn’t making as many headlines.
Jet-lagged and disoriented, I stumbled out of my room at 2 a.m. and ran into Johannes Gabriel, the night guard at the guesthouse where I’m staying for three months. Gabriel, an Ovambo man from the village of Okapa, told me of the drought that is gripping the nation, the worst in three decades. “Many cattle and people are dying, schools are closing because children aren’t interested in education, people are waiting on long lines for food.” While much of the world may know Namibia for tourism, wildlife conservation, and famous babies, the drought has received relatively little media exposure. Greater international attention and support will be needed if these conditions are indicative of climate challenges to come.
Namibia is already the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, making it one of the most drought-sensitive countries in the world. Flanked by two deserts, the country normally receives an average of only 10.35 inches (263 millimeters) of rainfall per year, a quarter of the global average and just above the official classification for a desert. Despite this meager precipitation, agriculture remains a critical industry for the country. Although commercial agriculture contributes only 6 percent of Namibia’s GDP, more than 70 percent of Namibians depend on subsistence agriculture for household food security, and wealth is traditionally measured by the number of cattle owned.
This year’s drought is a result of two years of failed rains and is concentrated in the country’s north, home to most of Namibia’s population but beyond most traditional tourist routes. In August, UNICEF estimated that nearly 780,000 people, representing over a third of Namibians and 65 percent of people living in the most affected regions, are moderately or severely affected by the drought, a number expected to increase as the drought wears on. An estimated 41 percent of schools in Namibia are without access to water, and some schools have not received sufficient food relief. This, together with a lack of food at home and families migrating to find better grazing land for livestock, has led to high rates of student dropout and school closures.
Overall, the government has tried to respond fairly aggressively to the drought. At least four boreholes have been constructed out of a planned 44 to provide groundwater access in drought-affected areas, and the military has sent vehicles to assist with food distribution. The Agricultural Bank of Namibia set aside US$9.1 million for loans to drought-stricken farmers, and earlier this year, the government declared a state of emergency and pledged US$20.1 million for drought relief, complemented by appeals by UNICEF for US$7.4 million and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for US$1.4 million.
But it’s unclear to what extent these appeals have been met, and by many accounts a significant funding gap remains. Furthermore, allegations have emerged that at least some relief efforts are being mismanaged, with relief workers going unpaid and food for relief going missing, sold to businessmen, or distributed along party lines.
The increased frequency of extreme weather events is indicative of a changing climate, and in addition to the current drought, this same region was affected by record flooding just two years ago. As a result, the government has begun to recognize the need for a comprehensive climate adaptation and disaster risk management plan, and has received support from the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Development Programme to perform assessments and outline basic policies. It has also developed region-specific adaptation toolkits, translated into the many different languages spoken here, to help individual communities plan adaptation measures.
However, the government might still be hampered by a mindset that views drought in isolation—divorced from larger, more systemic problems of poverty, malnutrition, and climate change. Prime Minister Hage Geingob recently shirked away from reports of drought-related deaths, distinguishing between “malnourishment and hunger caused by poverty and malnourishment and hunger caused by a lack of rain due to drought.” And at the 11th session of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification that Namibia hosted this September, Luc Gnacadja, the COP11 secretary, praised the country’s drought-response policy but stressed the importance of transitioning to a more long-term preparedness and risk management strategy.
But as Gnacadja highlighted, the lack of international support poses a greater challenge. While the country’s needs are substantial, its small population and recent promotion to “middle-income status” by the World Bank (despite having the third highest income inequality in the world) have made it a lower priority for international relief funding and climate finance. Although the frameworks may exist for an adaptation policy, educational programs like the adaptation toolkits, and proposed infrastructure projects such as a diversion reservoir near the northern city of Oshakati and a sea wall around the port of Walvis Bay, implementing them will require a significant amount of international funding and support.
Three weeks ago, I watched as the World Wildlife Fund presented President Hifikepunye Pohamba with its Gift of the Earth Award for the Namibian government’s successes in conserving wildlife at the opening of the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit, the first time the event has been held in Africa. Namibia helped pioneer the community conservancy model, which has enabled it to now boast the world’s largest population of endangered black rhino, Africa’s only expanding free-roaming lion population, and 42 percent of its total land area protected under some form of conservation mandate.
But these successes came through continuous support from several international development agencies and nongovernmental organizations. During President Pohamba’s acceptance speech, and throughout the weeklong Summit, no mention was made of the drought currently affecting one-third of the country. As Namibia heads into yet another potentially poor rainy season, it will need to be just as proactive in taking responsibility at home and lobbying for support from abroad if it is to solve this problem and build resilience for future climate challenges.