Climate change and El Niño have led to widespread drought across southern Africa. Remote tribal communities in Namibia are having to adapt their way of life to survive, as Luke Tredget reports.
When we landed in the Namibian capital city, Windhoek, it was hard to imagine we were in a country where the government had recently declared a state of emergency.
We encountered busy supermarkets, chain cafes, and all the vestiges of an advanced economy that you’d expect from a country that spent decades as a province of neighbouring South Africa.
But, as with so many places in Africa, it is a different story when you leave the capital.
Namibia is a vast and empty land – only Mongolia and Greenland have fewer people per square mile. After a ten-hour drive north, it feels like you are not only in a different country, but on a different planet.
Tarmac roads become dust tracks that wind on for miles between isolated, drought-riven tribal communities. For these families, Red Cross soup kitchens are often the only dependable source of food.
In contrast to Windhoek, the reality of the food crisis here in Kunene region is impossible to ignore.
Digging for water
In some villages, livestock numbers have dwindled to almost nothing. Boreholes, designed to drill up to 100 metres in search of water, are sitting defunct.
Children can be seen digging for water with plastic cups, which they then use to drink the resulting murky liquid.
And the most surprising thing? People don’t agree with you, when you talk about the area being hit by drought and El Niño.
For them, the lack of rain is not a new disaster. It’s merely part of the slow corrosion of climate change that has, over a period of decades, transformed the region into desert.
“This used to be forest,” said Dorkas Kapembe-Haiduwa, secretary general of the Namibian Red Cross.
Dorkas, a native of northern Namibia, was showing us around the desert plains as we sought to learn more about the food crisis and how the Red Cross is helping.
“For thousands of years people had cattle here, their cattle was everything. Now the livestock have died and they have nothing,” Dorkas said.
Indeed, the Himba tribe of northern Namibia – famous for their bright red body paint – has been remarkably successful in protecting their nomadic way of life from the encroachment of the modern world.
For example, they have portable school tents, so that everything – pupils, teachers, classroom and blackboards alike – can be moved when it is time for the cattle to be taken to new pasture.
But now it looks as though climate change, which is undoubtedly exacerbated by weather events such as El Niño, could be the final straw.
What’s the long-term answer?
The grassland needed to sustain herds of cattle has steadily turned to dust. Inevitably, tribal people are moving to towns and cities, where they most often live on the fringes of society, in search of casual labour.
The Red Cross is doing what it can to help. As well as soup kitchens, the Namibian Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) will soon start giving people cash.
The cash will give people dignity and flexibility in choosing how to tackle their own food shortages. In addition, seeds and tools will be distributed in time to plant during the imminent rainy season.
Volunteers will also screen children for signs of malnutrition, so that the desperately hungry can receive medical help.
The British Red Cross will be supporting these efforts – both in terms of funds and by sending a disaster response specialist – but there’s no illusion that these are long-term fixes.
What is needed is urgent and systemic change. On the last day of our visit we witnessed positive signs that this can be achieved.
In one village we met members of the Himba tribe, who have traditionally eschewed gardening and farming as sources of food or income.
They were working in a community garden irrigated with water brought down from nearby hills through a series of pipes installed by the Red Cross.
Here they were growing maize, onions and even tobacco, which they planned to sell at local markets.
It was hugely inspiring to see, as it demonstrated that people are becoming more flexible in the face of hardship. Communities are developing the skills to protect themselves against future disasters.
But this was just one village. A few miles down the dusty track, the next community had no reliable source of water or community garden.
There was little evidence of how the situation was going to improve if the drought continues until next year, and then the next, as many predict.
“People here want to change,” said Dorkas. “They are ready. The question is, are we able to help them do it? We will try.”
Luke Tredget, British Red Cross disaster management co-ordinator, in Namibia
- The British Red Cross has pledged more than a quarter of a million pounds to help the relief effort in Namibia. You can support our work by making a donation to our Disaster Fund.