By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo.
The Ngololweni community in southern eSwatini is still reeling from a drought over half a decade ago, which decimated farming, the main income generator, in the area. But the crisis here is not just about a loss of livelihood, it is a microcosm of a much bigger catastrophe facing the 1.2 million population of emaSwati: climate change.
Eswatini is an agro-based economy. The global climate change crisis is hitting countries like ours much harder and faster than those with the political will and foresight to diversify their economies.
In Ngololweni, vast tracts of land lie fallow and deep dongas and gullies crisscross the steep slopes. Farming hesitancy has set in amongst the 370 households, most of which have not cultivated their fields since the 2015/6 drought. They fear that because their crops are mainly rainfed, if they put their trust into the erratic weather patterns, they will suffer the same fate as they did six years ago. The Ngololweni crisis is not an isolated case – there are many similar drought-stricken and impoverished communities in the four regions of eSwatini.
According to data from Berkeley Earth, an American non-profit organisation responsible for environmental data science, eSwatini has warmed up by 1.43 degree Celsius over the past 60 years. This means that Eswatini now falls into a category of countries that have warned up by about 1.5 degrees over 100 years – a tipping point at which scientists say the impact of climate change grows significantly more intense.
Globally, over the past five years, the earth has also passed a major threshold. It is now 1 degree warmer than it was in the mid-1800s, before the industrial revolution. This spells disaster for a low middle-income country like eSwatini, where most of the population depend on subsistence farming for their livelihoods.
A senior member of the Ngololweni Royal Kraal, Bongani Dludlu, told Inhlase that they believe that the unpredictable weather patterns in the area are indicative of the effects of climate change taking hold. The 2015/6 drought was one side of the same coin because heavy, unseasonal rains have also added to insecurity that has gripped the farmers.
“As you can see, many of the people’s fields have remained uncultivated ever since the 2015/16 drought hit hard the whole country. We’ve also experienced heavy rains in the beginning of the year. People don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on risky farming due to the unpredictable weather conditions,” he says.
The worst affected in Ngololweni community is a 23-member farmers’ group called the Thandanani Farmers’ Scheme, which used to farm maize and vegetables before the water levels declined in the nearby rivers. Its chairperson, Siboniso Nxumalo (43), explains that water shortage forced them to scale down and ultimately stop crop production on their 11-ha garden plots.
One of the scheme members, Nsingizi Dlamini, whose livelihood entirely depended on the scheme, says that he scaled down his agricultural activities until he received an instruction to stop and wait for Eswatini Water Development Enterprise (ESWADE) to complete the construction of Ngololweni Dam.
“We’ve been told to wait until the dam construction upstream is complete. Then we’ll get enough water from it to start farming all over again under an improved farming practice introduced by the National Agricultural Marketing Board,” he says. “But at first, I couldn’t wait because the garden was my only source of livelihood since I quit working in the SA gold mines. I continued growing vegetables, maize and sugarcane on a small portion of my plot, which I sold to community members. But it’s a struggle to draw irrigation water from the drying up river.”
The eSwatini Government and Global Environment Facility, through ESWADE, have invested E12.5 million into the construction of Ngololweni Dam. But the dam project is only just starting and is expected to complete within 12 months.
Visibly excited Dludlu, who is also member of Thandanani Farmers’ Scheme, pins all his hopes on ESWADE’s completion of the dam.
Cattle farmers have also stopped dipping their cattle in the communal dip tank due to the water shortage, which has exposed them to parasitic ticks and tick-borne diseases.
According to Dr Xolani Dlamini, Director of Veterinary and Livestock Services, failure to bring cattle to the dipping tank is a crime. Dludlu stepped in to help the cattle farmers by using his own water pump to fill up the dip tank, despite the low water levels.
The crisis in Ngololweni has also extended beyond decimated crop and animal production: the people in the area are ravaged by hunger and diseases.
According to Ntombifuthi Dlamini, a chiefdom councillor, the worst affected group are the elderly and HIV-positive people on the antiretroviral treatment. She says that the starving children and elderly have been attacked by scabies. The community is also exposed to Covid-19 because there are little to no spare water resources to adhere to the Covid-19 precautions.
“Faced with the water problem, we’ve learnt to harvest rainwater from rooftops. We use it for drinking and domestic purposes in our homesteads. Covid-19 also poses a serious threat to our lives because one of its preventative measures is washing hands with running water. Many take it as the luxury that they can’t afford due to water scarcity,” she says.
An Inner Council Member, Ishel Thabede, is deeply concerned that the community shares drinking water with their livestock. He complains that such water is unfit for human consumption from the two rivers of Matuba and Mjozalala. Worse still, the water levels in these two rivers have drastically declined due to drought.
“Our biggest challenge is lack of drinking water for us and our livestock. We have to walk a long distance to fetch water from the rivers with very little flowing water,” he says. “Such water is also not clean because the upstream people bathe and wash clothes in the river. By the time the water reaches us downstream it’s too dirty. As a result, we’ve contracted waterborne diseases such as bilharzia and cholera.”
Garage Simelane, a community police officer, says that he is worried about the general environmental degradation in the area as a result of soil erosion. He says that deep dongas have developed in the pastures posing danger to the grazing cattle. He says fence poles that protect the grazing lands have been destroyed by termites.
Some community members are trying, within their own powers, to arrest the situation.
Thembile Ndlela, chairperson of the environment committee, says that some people have planted indigenous trees and aloes to rehabilitate the degraded pastures. The trees, such as umsinsi and muganyana have a deep root system that binds the loose soil to protect it from water run-off. eNgololweni resident, Charles Rose, has a borehole on his farm and helps supply water to the drought-stricken community at a fee of E450 per 5000 litres. He delivers water with a tractor pulling a 5000-litre tank to his customers.
The chiefdom councillor gives credit to ESWADE for being sympathetic to the plight of Ngololweni community. She believes that once the dam under construction is complete there will be enough water not only for drinking but also for backyard gardens in the homesteads. She says that Thandanani Farmers’ Scheme will have enough water for irrigation.
Until then however, the community remains deeply mistrusting of any promises because they have already waited six years for help and most have lost their livelihoods.