Enduring the Shocks of a Stressful Environment (SSAWRN)

Alan Anderson

Moseki Motsholapheko entered the RISE program by an unusual route – from the field of environmental science (or human geography), and “from the inside.” He had been working as a social scientist at the Okavango Research Institute since 2000 as a research assistant, studying human adaptation to flooding.

The human population of the Okavango region has grown rapidly in recent decades, slowed only by the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, and Moseki has worked with Prof. Donald Kgathi, an economist, to understand the response of villagers and rural farmers to the many “shocks” inherent in a region where relentless drought is punctuated by occasional floods. In a land as flat as a table, as is the Okavango, a flood that raises the water level by even a meter can destroy houses and fields across a vast area. The shock of dessication can deny water to livestock, curtail fishing, and prevent planting of crops. “I’ve been doing research on livelihoods, on the adaptation of people to drought, diseases, and other large shocks,” said Moseki. “The shock I’m working on now is dessication.”

He heard about RISE in 2008, when he had nearly completed a study of water and livelihoods in the area around the Boteti River, near Maun. He was about to complete an MS in environmental science. During his work with Prof. Kgathi, he had participated in a large, three-nation SADC project on water management and policy issues around ephemeral river basins, such as the Boteti. An ephemeral river is one that flows briefly in response to rainfall, then returns to a dry state. In southern Africa, the Okavango River is an anomaly, pulsing in response to the Angolan rainy season, but continuing to flow during other months of the year.

One of the findings of the study, said Moseki, was that dispersed management authority over water issues had been both top-down and inefficient, creating policy conflicts and inconveniences for users. Challenges ranged from outright lack of water for some users to policies that created barriers to people seeking water. For example, he said, people in rural communities who needed to apply for a borehole permit to obtain water for a kitchen garden might have to travel 200 km to fill out an application and then pay 10 pula (about $2, a substantial amount for a peasant farmer) for their water bill. The distance applicants travel to fill out these application forms diverts a significant amount of time away from their livelihood efforts.

“I co-authored a paper about this,” he said, “and a lot of the issues we raised have been included in the review of the national Water Master Plan, which was completed in 2009. Some of the results have been good. For example, the water authorities that used to be in charge of regulation, policy, and supply services are dividing those responsibilities into three different offices, as they should.”

At the heart of much of Moseki’s work has been the impact of the hydrological cycle of the Okavango on human livelihoods. The subsistence farmers around the Okavango depend on two different kinds of farming. Conventional farming depends on ordinary rainfall, which is scant and unpredictable. Flood recession farming, or molapo farming, uses the same technique that farmers have followed along the Nile for millennia. When the annual floods recede, the farmers plant quickly in the rich soil of the flood plain, hoping their crops will flourish in the moisture left behind. The yields from this technique can be very high; a good molapo year can produce more than 16 times the yield in sorghum as dryland farming. But such yields are never certain; during some years, the flood water may never leave the fields, or it may return to inundate fields that have already been planted, or it may not arrive at all. During drought years, molapo farmers are forced to depend on the same ordinary rainfall as the other farmers, which is scant and undependable, and may occasionally bring its own floods. Only a few crops are amenable to molapo farming: primarily maize, sorghum, and millet, with smaller amounts of beans, melons, pumpkins, and groundnuts. Many people also earn income by processing sorghum into a kind of beer.

“Our findings confirm that the people in this region generally have a low capacity to adapt to shocks,” said Moseki. “They lack almost every kind of capital they need -- human capital, financial capital, and physical capital when they are far from the main settlements. There has also been a general decline in social capital, the close human networks that people count on during times of shock. We believe that policies and strategies should promote high access to natural capital” – essential resources such as water, grazing land, fisheries, and forests for firewood. “This is a way to increase the resilience of households when a shock comes.”

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