The Dusty Limpopo River
15 Mar 2012
Source: Content partner // Inter Press Service
By Fidelis Zvomuya
BEITBRIDGE, Zimbabwe , Mar 15 (IPS) - Chapita Ramovha remembers the
days when the Limpopo River lapped at the foot of his village in south
Zimbabwe. He says that back then residents of Makakavhule village had
to build high walls to protect their homes from flooding. "The Limpopo
River was a marvel to watch, a beauty of nature, a source of food and
income for us who lived along it," the subsistence farmer recalls.But
now, when he looks out across the landscape, he sees only a vast,
sandy plateau that is devoid of natural life. "Dust," laments Ramovha,
who has lived here since 1942. "It is nothing but a dust river."
Previously, agriculture and tourism flourished here along the Limpopo
River. The area was well known for its beautiful lakes and vast
fields, which produce the local agricultural yield. "But that
livelihood is now being threatened by a severe water shortage that
dramatically illustrates a broader regional crisis," Ramovha says.
The Limpopo River Basin is one of the most water stressed and,
according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations, extreme droughts occur in the basin every 10 to 20 years.
The basin has a catchment area of around 413,000 kmï¿½ that covers four
countries - Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe -
affecting a combined population of 14 million people, most of whom are
subsistence farmers. About 244,000 hectares are under irrigation and
an estimated 234,000 hectares are under crop production here, while
1.7 million hectares are used for pasture.
However, due to bad environmental management, only craggy stumps of
trees line the riverbank. People have cut down the trees that once
used to create jagged coves along the river, which has long been home
to crabs, fish and wild animals.
"But at the few water holes on this part of the river you can hardly
catch a frog. The river is gone, siltation has taken over. The rains
are no longer reliable. They come late and sometimes don't come at
all," Ramovha says.
He says the daily temperatures have increased substantially within the
region and have killed many of the catchment's once-lush grass beds,
depriving livestock and game of their natural feed and habitat.
Timothy Chauke, a farmer and a contracted field research assistant for
the Agriculture Research Council's Limpopo Basin project on data
gathering, says the drought has become the most common and devastating
of all environmental issues affecting the basin.
Chauke, who is a livestock and crop farmer, says the impact is being
felt in economic, social and environmental terms here.
"Variable and erratic rainfall means that the rainy season often does
not start when expected and can be episodic, with an entire season's
rainfall occurring in the space of a few days."
He says over the years he has seen reduced grazing quality and crop
yields, and this has resulted in a decline in the quality of living
"Food insecurity is now high. Cases of malnutrition and famine are on
the increase. My farm productivity has been reduced from five tonnes
per hectare of maize to less than three. Our natural environment has
been destroyed, and as a result this is affecting productivity,"
Chauke says. He adds that his input cost has also increased over the
Most of the farmers IPS interviewed along the Limpopo River say the
water levels have drastically gone down as a result of a rise in
During what is meant to be the rainy season in the area, drought is
killing off the crops. The resultant dust and sandstorms have
increased soil erosion and air pollution, while reducing soil
"We are faced with poor soils and limited water resources. Most of the
rivers that feed the Limpopo are able to provide water only for short
periods of time each year," Chauke says.
Pollution and competition for water in areas along the river create
significant stress on the available resources. Poverty is widespread
and people are extremely vulnerable to the effects of drought or crop
failure here. Each of the 24 tributaries that feed the basin has
communities with an average annual per capita income of less than 200
Starvation and malnutrition have become common. About one million
people in the basin currently rely on food aid.
Addressing the Third International Forum on Water and Food in December
in South Africa, Dr. Simon Cook, a scientist with the International
Centre for Tropical Agriculture and head of CIGAR's Challenge
Programme for Water and Food (CPWF) Basin Focal Projects, said climate
change is expected to exacerbate Africa's struggles with strained
water resources and food security.
Cook says research confirms that rising global temperatures are
expected to increase flooding in some areas, cause a decline in
agricultural production, threaten biodiversity and the productivity of
natural resources, increase the range of vector-borne and waterborne
diseases, and exacerbate desertification.
As part of a five-year global research project, scientists from the
CPWF examined the potential effects of higher temperatures and
shifting rainfall patterns caused by climate change, on, among others,
the continent's five river basins. In the process, they say, some
unsettling scenarios have emerged for parts of Africa.
During a telephone interview with IPS, Cook says of concern are the
projected changes in the Limpopo Basin, which include rising
temperatures and a decline in rainfall.
Cook says there is a need for researchers to ask whether current
agriculture development strategies in the Limpopo, which are
predicated according to current levels of water availability, are in
fact realistic for a future that may present new challenges and
In a recent press statement CPWF ï¿½s director of the Water and Food
programme, Alain Vidal, says the new insights regarding the effect of
climate change on river basins may indicate a need to revisit
assumptions about water availability.
Vidal says the Limpopo River, like many rivers around the world, is
heavily affected by higher global temperatures.
"In some parts of the Limpopo even widespread adoption of innovations
like drip irrigation may not be enough to overcome the negative
effects of climate change on water availability," Vidal adds.
"But in other parts, investments in rain-fed agriculture such as
rainwater harvesting, sand pits and small reservoirs might be better
placed, as there could be sufficient rainfall for innovative
strategies to boost production. The key is to obtain the data needed
to make an informed decision."
Find out more about the forces behind climate change - but also about
the growing citizen awareness and new climate policies towards
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