The long drought in Namibia

Namibia is suffering its worst drought in 30 years. This is not only affecting grain and livestock production but has left 34% of the population, in southern Africa’s driest country, in need of urgent food support. Carine van Vuuren reports.

The long drought in Namibia
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The severe drought in Kunene province in northwest Namibia is turning into a matter of life and death. This is the second successive year that the region has not had enough rain, and is an already dry and impoverished area, where almost 46% of households are classified as poor or severely poor. Tueenmuine Mbendura, an elderly Himba woman from Omwangete village in Kunene, registered for food aid from the government three months ago but is yet to receive assistance.

“The drought killed everything,” she says. “I can remember a big drought when I was young, but it was nothing like this. I’ve never seen a two-year drought like this.” The men from her village have all moved away to try to find grazing for the remaining cattle. Mbendura and most of the people in her village live on one meal of watery porridge a day. The goats that remain are not producing milk, yet selling the livestock is not viable either.

The Himba are generally reluctant to sell their cattle, as the animals’ cultural worth exceeds their commercial value. Given their poor state, they will earn their owners only a pittance anyway, even with the government marketing incentive of N$300 (R300) for cattle and N$70 for small stock. The government is also providing a grazing and transport subsidy for farmers to move livestock to areas where grazing is still available.

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During a visit to the area with Unicef in late July, Farmer’s Weekly observed that in many of the northern villages, grandmothers like Mbendura were keeping families alive on their old-age pensions of N$500 a month. Only a few households received child support grants for orphaned or disabled children. The Namibian government, which declared the drought a national disaster last month, has budgeted N$207 million for drought assistance, including food aid, livestock incentives and water provision.

This figure is expected to increase significantly to provide assistance with more boreholes and food aid. Last week, the government also lifted the nearly decade-old restriction on live sheep exports to South Africa. The local slaughter-to-export ratio of live sheep has been decreased from 6:1 to 1:1 for three months.

Abattoirs hard hit
The drought has had a ‘massive impact’ on the abattoir industry, says Ebben Kalondo, senior manager of corporate communication and public relations at Meat Corporation of Namibia Ltd (Meatco), Namibia’s largest meat processing company. Meatco has stopped slaughtering sheep and will focus on cattle only. The drought has forced it
to operate its Windhoek and Okahandja abattoirs on a rotational basis, resulting in more than 400 contractors losing employment.

While the two abattoirs have the capacity to slaughter up to 180 000 cattle per annum, it is estimated that only 78 000 will be slaughtered this year. Last year, the figure stood at only 96 000. Kalondo adds that the drought has compounded the problems faced by the sector, such as the downturn of the economy in the EU and changing consumer preferences there.
The EU is the Namibian meat industry’s key export market.

According to Kalondo, abattoirs like Meatco are struggling to buy enough cattle to operate at levels that will allow them to benefit from economies of scale, as farmers opt to sell weaners to South African feedlots, where the use of growth stimulants and steroids are not banned and the time period to get cattle to market is much shorter. In Namibia, cattle have to be raised on the veld and it takes about 18 months to get them to market.

Angolans are also increasingly buying Namibian breeding stock. In the first six months of the year, more than 130 000 head of cattle were exported, compared with fewer than 50 000 in the same period the previous year. Kalondo explains that farmers “will need to be convinced to remain farming” and will need government assistance to restock after the drought. This is expected to take three to five years. “We need to come up with a strategy that will keep people on the land,” she says.

The North
Harald Marggraff, manager of commodities at the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU) explains that the impact of the drought has been bigger in the areas north of Windhoek and conditions are worsening. “Farmers are buying feed and grass and have sold large numbers of cattle,” he says, adding that the increase in weaner exports is expected to continue, as the season for sales typically starts now.

South of Windhoek, widespread rains over the Easter weekend provided some support and the animals are still in relatively good condition. “Once it starts raining again, farmers will need a restocking incentive to build up their herds,” he says. Christie Viljoen, senior economist at NKC Independent Economists, points out that agriculture remains a crucial aspect of the economy, contributing 8% to GDP.

“This is, however, a skewed figure and doesn’t show exactly how important agriculture is. In Namibia, two thirds of people are dependent on agriculture for a living,” she says. “What makes the drought even more difficult is that Namibia is already dry. So any variation in rainfall hits hard.” The north is dominated by communal farmers, which contribute 30% of agricultural output, while commercial farmers are mainly located in the south.

According to government data, maize production from communal farmers declined by 15,2% this year, while commercial output fell 53,3%. Production of mahangu (pearl millet), the staple food in the north, is down 41% from 2012. Grazing conditions have also been affected by veld fires and army worms.

Foot-and-mouth disease
As the commercial herd is small and declining, addressing the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) problem is important to secure the future of the industry, explains Kalondo. Moving the veterinary red line, which separates the Ovamboland, Kunene, Caprivi and Kavango provinces from the rest of the country, further north will be a ‘massive operation’. A 100% vaccination rate will be required and the borders with Zambia, Botswana and Angola will have to be secured. The Caprivi is a high FMD risk area because of the presence of buffaloes, and disease control remains a challenge. Expanding the FMD-free area to the north will take 20 to 25 years.

In the short term, the focus is on mitigating the impact of the drought. The number of registered people who need assistance exceeded 460 000 at the end of July. By the end of July, only unfortified maize meal had been distributed. If the rains do come, it is expected that assistance will be needed until March next year, when the first harvests are expected.

The country has sufficient maize stocks to last until December and is negotiating to buy multi-nutrient powder from South Africa, says MacDonald Kadratsa, technical advisor for disaster risk reduction in the office of the prime minister. Buying fish and meat from local producers is also being considered.

Anecdotal reports suggest that some of the maize meal earmarked for poor households is being sold across the border in Angola. In the southern provinces of Angola bordering Namibia, it is estimated that the number of people in need of food assistance is about 800 000, while many struggle to find access to clean drinking water. The Namibian government has spent a significant amount on water infrastructure such as boreholes and water pumps, but access to food is currently the main focus.

With a per capita income of US$4 700 (R47 000), Namibia is classified as an upper-middle income country. This, combined with its small population of 2,3 million, makes it difficult to attract donors, says Micaela Marques de Sousa, Unicef representative in Namibia. International aid agencies such as Unicef and the Red Cross have issued appeals for drought relief.

Despite the country’s relative wealth, many Namibians suffer from malnutrition, even during years of sufficient harvests. About 29% of children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth as a result of malnutrition, just below the World Health Organisation’s 30% threshold to be classified as a public health emergency.

Nahas Angula, the current minister of defence, is an advocate for improved nutrition. With the negative effects of climate change on Namibia, where the northern areas are prone to droughts and flooding, the traditional way of life of many people is under threat. It is also difficult to implement sustainable farming methods. “In the long run, we must address the production systems. Let us focus on small-scale producers – improve their seed, soil fertility, farming methods and weed control,” he says.

Phone Ebben Kalondo, Meatco, on +264 61 321 6400 or Judy Matjila, Unicef Namibia, on +264 61 204 6253.