Fighting Off the Desert in South Africa’s Succulent Karoo

© CI/photo by John Martin


To this day, the thought of drought raises the hair on my neck. It makes me recall the terrible impact a long drought in the late 1970s had on my father’s farm, in South Africa’s Succulent Karoo region.

This year in western South Africa, the region of Namaqualand has just experienced a long, drier-than-usual summer; in Limpopo province as well as neighbouring Namibia, drought continues to rage. We need to make sure we do all we can to help today’s farmers be more resilient to droughts than they were in my father’s day.

I remember that year, decades ago, when the rains never arrived. Plants failed to grow, and many of the pregnant ewes lost their lambs prematurely. The lambs that were born were weak, and many died.

A farmer depends on his lamb crop to sustain him and his family, and that year there was no income from the sheep. The ewes got thin, and my father had to buy fodder at an enormous cost. He also had to go and work part-time at the local railway in order to make ends meet.

On weekends, when the farm workers had off, I and my sisters — the oldest aged 12, and the youngest only 6 — had to help my father feed the sheep. Our job was to keep the sheep away from the trough while my dad filled it with food. The sheep were so hungry that we had to try to keep them from the troughs until they were filled so there was enough for all, otherwise they would trample each other. There was always an air of panic and desperation during these feeding times.

In the end, my dad had to sell many of his ewes to reduce the herd size in order to prevent the animals from completely destroying the remaining vegetation and trampling the dry, brittle soil. Had he not done this, he would have had a dust bowl for a farm within months.

Desertification happens fast, and it is very hard — if not impossible — to reverse the damage. That’s why we have to act quickly.

Desertification poses a major threat to the future of the Succulent Karoo, which is one of the only two arid biodiversity hotspots in the world (the other is the Horn of Africa). The region is home to a staggering more than 2,400 plant species found nowhere else on Earth, as well as 15 endemic reptile species.

With low rainfall and marginal resources, this area is vulnerable to any disturbances, but especially overgrazing. In Namaqualand, only 29% of the veld (the original vegetation) remains. However, with livestock farming being the main source of livelihood for both descendants of the Khoi people native to the region and Dutch colonists, preserving this vegetation is critical.

The drought in Namibia has had an enormous impact on the South African small stock farming economy, as Namibian farmers scramble to dramatically reduce their herds. The result is that around 6,000 sheep cross over the Namibian border into South Africa daily, flooding the market at a price one-third of that South African farmers normally get. With the overhead costs of farming having risen dramatically in the past 10 years, farmers are finding it hard to make ends meet with their heavily reduced income from lambs sent to the market.

Conservation South Africa (CSA) is working with local farmers to find better ways to raise crops and livestock while ensuring that plants and fresh water are preserved for the protection of the region’s distinctive species, as well as food and water security. Along with preventing overgrazing and restoring both rangelands and water resources, we aim to build resilience to climate change, which scientists predict will increase the aridity of this harsh region even more.

By reducing herd numbers, restoring wetlands and training farmers in basic ecology and rangeland management, farmers are enabled to weather the predicted changes. Many of these farmers live at subsistence level, depending on their very small herds for food security and as emergency funds in times of illness or when the kids’ school fees must be paid.

An acre lost to desertification is an acre virtually lost forever — at least relative to our lifetimes. In arid areas, it can take up to a century for damaged natural areas to recover.

And in the arid hotspots, every inch of land is vital for the continued existence of its inimitable species and cultures, and to provide places of refuge for all living things in the face of climate change. Though often not as charismatic as the tropics, the Succulent Karoo and other arid hotspots — with their extraordinary wildlife and traditional economies to uphold — need every bit of help they can get to fend off the encroachment of dusty, lifeless land.

Malinda Gardiner is the communications coordinator for Conservation South Africa’s Namaqualand Green Economy Demonstration.