Review Articles

Human response and adaptation to drought in the arid zone: lessons from southern Africa

P.J. O'Farrell, P. M.L. Anderson, S. J. Milton, W. R.J. Dean
South African Journal of Science | Vol 105, No 1/2 | a36 | DOI: | © 2010 P.J. O'Farrell, P. M.L. Anderson, S. J. Milton, W. R.J. Dean | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 19 January 2010 | Published: 19 January 2010

About the author(s)

P.J. O'Farrell, Natural Resources and the Environment, CSIR, P.O.Box 320, Stellenbosch 7599, South Africa., South Africa
P. M.L. Anderson, bEnvironmental and Geographical Science Department, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa., South Africa
S. J. Milton, Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration, P.O. Box 47, Prince Albert 6930, South Africa., South Africa
W. R.J. Dean, Renu-Karoo Veld Restoration, P.O. Box 47, Prince Albert 6930, South Africa., South Africa

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Human adaptation and response to drought is primarily through evasion or endurance. A review of historical agricultural practices in southern Africa demonstrates evidence of drought evasion response strategies in well-established transhumance routes, where herders move livestock on a seasonal basis in order to exploit resources subject to different climatic regimes. European settlers to the arid regions of South Africa quickly recognised the necessity of these evasion options to survive drought, and adopted the transhumance practices of indigenous farmers. Areas of geographically diverse resource bases became hotly contested by settlers and indigenous farmers. The success of evasion systems are shown to hinge on good social and institutional support structures. When movement is not an option, drought endurance is pursued by attempting to limit the damage to the natural resource base. This is through a number of means such as forage conservation, varying livestock types and numbers, water and soil conservation and taking up alternative livelihood options. State responses to drought over the last century reflect the general South African pattern of racially divided and unjust policies relating to resource access. Historically the state provided considerable support to white commercial farmers. This support was frequently contradictory in its aims and generally was inadequate to enable farmers to cope with drought. Since the advent of democracy in 1994, the state has intervened less, with some support extended to previously disadvantaged and poor communal farmers. Climate change predictions suggest an increase in drought, suggesting that the adoption of mitigating strategies should be a matter of urgency. To do this South Africa needs to build social and institutional capacity, strive for better economic and environmental sustainability, embed drought-coping mechanisms into land restitution policy to ensure the success of this programme, and acknowledge the diversity of the agricultural sector.


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