Re-imagining the potential of effective drought responses in South Africa


Extreme droughts can result in crippling impacts across local and regional scales. In South Africa, droughts are regular occurrences presenting several opportunities to learn from and improve on drought risk reduction efforts. Drought responses in South Africa, however, show a rather ‘messy’ reality. In the early 1990s, for example, an expanded set of various actors, not only restricted to science ‘experts’, collectively shaped and expanded the traditional drought response that had dominated in the country enabling a rethinking of risk reduction. Recent extreme droughts, occurring over 20 years later, appear to have produced interventions that have taken place with little focussed recollection of these past drought responses. A comparative assessment of the responses to droughts over time reveals some reaction but little effective ‘deep’ thinking about drought. The persistent truths of recurring drought, a failure to learn from the process of drought rather than the event, the problems of the scientific uncertainty linked to droughts and the usual crisis response to drought made by a select few, are all shown to be threats to ensuring adaptation to repeated droughts in the future.


Southern Africa is often faced with droughts of varying impact and magnitude, including those that can endure for several seasons. Preparing for and managing droughts is challenging, both from the science of drought detection and also from how droughts are defined and framed and how responses are managed. Differences in meaning and approaches to ‘what is an extreme climate event such as drought?’ prevail in the literature (e.g. Wilhite and Glantz 1987; Wilhite et al. 2014).

South Africa, the focus in this article, has experienced several ‘severe’ drought events (as occurred in the early 1990s, the recent droughts of 2014/15–16 and the recent, severe drought in Cape Town) (Wolski 2018). Despite scientific uncertainty currently in global atmospheric climate models to accurately project for droughts, the focus on possible future increases in droughts, with greater magnitude linked to climate change, is widening and deepening. Assessments for some parts of the world, for example, have shown that droughts have become more frequent and of greater severity, and that they may become more intense in the future: there is “medium confidence that some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts” (Seneviratne et al. 2012: 119) and “there is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st century in some seasons and areas due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration. This applies to regions including …southern Africa…” (Seneviratne et al. 2012:113).

Extreme events such as drought are not, however, only related to declining rainfall and excessive heat. In South Africa, a number of investigations into the socio-political, cultural and economic dimensions of development and climate justice, including that relating to periods of extreme water stress, have been explored (Bond 2012). Droughts tend to expose the institutional and governance dimensions of risk reduction responses (Smith 2016), such as how drought is framed and the resulting coping and adaptation interventions that flow from various framings of drought intervention (Mehta 2010). Political and technical approaches to drought can, for example, preclude more nuanced assessments that challenge the dominance of a technological, market response. The dominance of bureaucratic and institutional approaches can also ‘block out’ the political contestations and issues of access to water. The creation and sustainability of interactive ‘meeting spaces and opportunities’ for the varied voices of actors not usually engaged in such discourses, including civic society, farmers and water practitioners, rural communities, as well as scientists who are usually called on to advise on drought risk reduction interventions, require more attention (Mehta 2010).

In Australia for example, the decade-long “Millennium Drought” opening the twenty-first century exposed underlying problems in water governance such as inadequate water demand management and revealed a lack of understanding around drought’s social impacts and longer-term trends (van Dyke et al. 2013). Cities in Australia are now becoming better adapted to both the social, as well the technological, aspects of drought management (Saayman and Adams 2002). In South Africa, however, despite several severe droughts and some notable ‘top-down efforts’ (Baudoin et al. 2017), effective drought management remains elusive (Hornby et al. 2016). The Western Cape’s recent extreme drought, beginning in 2015, illustrates this point, as Cape Town’s drought reveals issues of complex drought governance and planning (Mulligan 2018; Wolski 2018).

In this article, we focus specifically on the role of the historical framing of drought (Whitfield 2016) and examine the dominance of a singular focus on ‘hard science’ to inform drought response. We argue that this singular focus continues to frustrate a more holistic, socio-political and more inclusive notion of drought (Mehta 2010). In the article, we also argue that South Africa’s failure to ‘learn’ from past droughts continues to constrain effective drought risk reduction today. This argument and assessment is based on a mixed research methods approach and literature review following a brief description of South Africa’s climate context. Thereafter, the concept of ‘drought’ is problematised, highlighting the underlying challenges to framing drought discourses in South Africa. The extreme nature of the current drought context is then outlined and the question of what South Africa has learned from the past is addressed. The concluding discussion argues that drought risk reduction efforts in South Africa showed significant promise in the 1990s, by enabling a more inclusive and collective understanding and framing of the challenge. These more inclusive approaches, however, then reverted to ‘business as usual responses’, namely interventions anchored in meteorological descriptors of drought and technocentric solutions that, we posit, significantly forestall planning. Recommendations for developing inclusive knowledge generation processes to reframe more robust drought planning and responses for climate change conclude the article.

Drought discourses—influenced by past and current imaginaries

Drought is more than just a period of low rainfall and searing temperatures. Understanding and managing drought from a complex system perspective is crucial in arid countries. Institutions designed to reduce drought vulnerabilities are therefore challenged to be exceedingly flexible in rapidly changing environmental contexts (Hurlbert and Montana 2015). We also need to focus on the “change agents involved, learning among the change agents, the pathways and mechanisms through which change occurs, the generalisability of these mechanisms and the sustainability of change” (Mapfumo et al. 2015:11). Thus, responses to drought are not only needed from technical experts. We need to include a range of perspectives including behavioural (Feola 2015) and expanded conceptualisations of water scarcity (Mehta 2010).

In such a quest, however, the need is not just for a re-alignment of government structures (Baudoin et al. 2017) but also a re-thinking of drought ‘governance’; looking back in time and critically reflecting on past drought experiences, imaginaries of drought risk reduction and how local context influences drought response. In some cases, the political structures, while trying to meaningfully manage droughts, exhibit a persistent and stark inability to enable critical ‘thinking’ (Douglas 1986) and to enable reflection on lessons from the past (Holloway et al. 2013). The challenge of moving from ‘static’ notions of change to more ‘flexible’ notions of change (Leach et al. 2010), requires that we improve our understanding of current drought experience, namely how drought is being framed (Hornby et al. 2016); how we understand processes shaping periods of so-called drought crisis, uncertainty and change (Mapfumo et al. 2015); as well as investigating whose knowledge is valorised and acted upon when trying to reduce the challenges accompanying drought (Ziervogel et al. 2010).

Multi-methods—interviews and historical review

A range of methods are used in this article to understand the inertia and paralysis that can grip the region, across scales and among various actors (e.g. bottom-up and top-down processes), when a severe drought occurs. Interviews were undertaken with some key actors that have been involved in drought risk reduction over the years. These included climate scientists and officials from various government departments tasked with drought risk reduction including the Department of Environmental Affairs, the National Disaster Management Centre, and the South African Weather Service. These interviews were then interrogated in conjunction with a detailed examination of various historical drought documents, scientific articles and social media, including press releases, to gain an understanding of how science, practice and policy interactions are linked to drought risk reduction in South Africa.

Local climate context and adaptation efforts in South Africa

With this as background, attention now turns to examining the South African case in more detail. Rainfall, both in the past and currently in South Africa, is characterised by persistent and notable ‘scarcity’ and ‘variability’ (Tyson 1986). South Africa is particularly vulnerable to periods of dry conditions; the average annual rainfall is around 500 mm per annum (Zucchini and Nenadi 2006; Vogel and Zyl 2016). The country has experienced several ‘severe’ droughts, some triggered by recent El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) driven events (Landman et al. 2014).

Drought, however, is not only about enhanced understanding of various atmospheric drivers of change. Water access and resource use, as argued in the introduction, are also driven by a range of political and historical drivers that shape water scarcity over time (Mehta 2010; Templehoff 2015). Migration, urbanisation and climate change intersect with narratives of unequal access, highlighting drought’s deeper socio-political processes (Vogel and Zyl 2016), such as water access (e.g. Brandfort in the Free State: Templehoff 2015). Some of the key issues around drought in South Africa relate to growing settlements, rapid urbanisation and inadequate infrastructure (see good reviews in the National Water Resource Strategy, Department of Water Affairs 2013). These co-occurring stresses and wicked challenges (Rittel and Webber 1973) are placing a significant strain on water supply for livelihood and development activities such as food production, energy, mining and tourism. As stated by the head of the Water Research Commission:

Water is the single greatest constraint to our economic and societal growth, yet we do not reflect that in our long-term planning (Naidoo 2016).

Formal knowledge about South Africa’s climate and environment has been well-documented since at least the early 1900s (Union of South Africa 1923; Bruwer 1989), however with varying results:

…For over a quarter of a century the governments of the various States of South Africa have applied experts and commissions for advice as to means of stopping or arresting desiccation. For over a quarter of a century this advice has been pigeonholed. … Thus many a man, who formerly was anxious to assist, has become callous on account of the failure of previous governments to come to grips with the problem (Union of South Africa 1923:2 & 3).

Notwithstanding this wealth of expertise across a range of sectors and actors, the appearance and consequences of an ‘extreme’ climate event such as the ENSO and year-on-year drought, continues to expose the tenuous links between science and various other knowledges when action on drought must be taken. Some forms of knowledge are perceived to be held by actors seemingly at the ‘top’ (e.g. formal knowledge held by government officials and scientists) while other forms of knowledge are held by actors at the so called ‘bottom’ (local, tacit, traditional and historical knowledge) and often not valued as highly as that provided by so called ‘experts’ (Benson and Clay 1994; Vogel 1994; Buckland et al. 2000; Davies 2002; Vogel et al. 2010; Ngaka 2012; Holloway et al. 2013; Vogel et al. 2014; Vogel and Zyl 2016).

Drought identification and impact—South African science and policy challenges

Drought is defined as “A period of abnormally dry weather long enough to cause a serious hydrological imbalance” (Mach et al. 2014: 122). A meteorological drought is also referred to as “an abnormal precipitation deficit”, while a mega-drought is “very lengthy and pervasive” (Mach et al. 2014: 122). Thus, drought is a relative term. In South Africa, a rainfall deficit of 25% is usually classified as ‘severe’, but a 20% deficit can result in significant social and biophysical impacts (South African Weather Service 2018). During the period between July 1960 and June 2004, for example, eight summer rainfall seasons in which rainfall was less than 80% of the normal were noted (South African Weather Service 2018). The repeated nature of such occurrences (and the possibility of future occurrences) demands deliberate actions.

The responses to drought in the country have, however, not only been shaped by a scientific appreciation of what is causing them. Periods of drought have also been strongly driven by a political need to manage water for development, notably commercial agriculture. The focus on drought has thus historically focussed predominantly on rural, commercial, ‘white’ agriculture with significant resources (both financial and other) being prioritised to predominantly white farmers (Adams 1993; Vogel et al. 2010; Vogel and Zyl 2016).

Tracking the drought discourse in South Africa over time

A series of phases can be identified in the South African national climate discourse over time. Initially, a focus on climate impacts dominated, followed by a focus on understanding climate vulnerability impacts and responses. An emphasis on climate stress and climate change adaptive capacity then followed and finally, a recent and emerging focus on improved drought risk reduction (Vogel et al. 2014). These framings of climate change (including climate variability periods such as extreme drought) have long antecedents and histories, as a read of the early 1923 Drought Commission report quickly reveals. These periods and ‘turns’ in drought risk reduction responses are therefore not discreet and when new paradigms are ushered in, difficulties in more proactive responses arise. Grappling with new framings of drought risk (e.g. including a social and economic component into assessments that have been dominated by biophysical and technocratic approaches) is usually frustrated by lags between both science and policy, but more critically also between policy ‘speak’ and ‘action and implementation’ on the ground, as well as active engagement and inclusion of knowledge from a range of practitioners and society (Vogel et al. 2014).

Much of the recent work in the climate change arena has also been driven by the local context. The physical, meteorological hazards such as floods and droughts in the early 1990s and the changes in the government regime in the 1990s, towards a new political dispensation that places all people at the heart of socially just governance, ushered in a period for legislation activity that gave birth to a world-renowned disaster risk legislation. The creation of the Disaster Management Act of 2002 (Republic of South Africa 2002) and various international reporting commitments to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has spurred on national actions including the Long Term Adaptation Scenarios (LTAS) (Vogel et al. 2010; Ngaka 2012; Holloway et al. 2013). A series of recent policy documents, assessments and strategies have thus been compiled (e.g. the 2004 National Climate Change Response Strategy, followed by the 2010 National Climate Change Response Green Paper and the 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper: DEA 2010; 2011; 2013). These policies have been replicated in intent at provincial and local levels, accompanied by strong calls for the development of local adaptation and disaster plans and strategies.

South Africa’s National Development Plan, which aims to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030, specifically addresses climate change and specifically identifies the socio-economically marginalised as most vulnerable to its impacts (Republic of South Africa 2012). Additionally, the national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) (2016) (previously the Department of Water Affairs), the custodian of South Africa’s water resources, states in their annual report for 2016/17 that the public must be made aware of the impact of climate change as one of the factors threatening water availability in the country. To these ends, the national Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), mandated to conserve natural resources, is running a Local Government Climate Change Support Program (LGCCSP) (2018) aimed at educating local governments about climate change, empowering them to assess their level of vulnerability, as well as equipping them to plan for climate change mitigation.

Drought—an inconvenient but recurring truth!

Despite the wealth of policy on climate change and drought responses, recent droughts are a stark reminder of the realities of climate variability and the difficulty of effectively responding. Indications of possible variations in the ‘normal’ climate were detected as early as 2014/15:

One of South Africa’s biggest sugar producers, Illovo Sugar, will close its Umzimkulu mill for the year-long 2015 milling season starting in April [...]. What’s worrying is that the drought will continue to affect industry even in 2016 (Ntuli 2015).

Parched Free State hit by mass exodus […] Farmers are leaving in droves and land is lying fallow in the worst drought in 23 years (Kings 2015).

This is now a disaster. We should start gearing ourselves up to import 5 million tons (maize).—Jannie De Villiers, CEO of Grain SA, on the impacts of drought on the maize crop (Janse van Vuuren 2016)

The rainfall recorded at our Table Mountain and Steenbras gauge sites during 2015 and 2016 was among the lowest on our record of some 100 years (City of Cape Town 2017).

Of interest in the case of extreme drought, including outcomes or impacts, is determining whose knowledge counts when debating various interventions.

As early as the 1920s, experts were used to manage droughts:

The course adopted in taking evidence from farmers at public meetings was to request the magistrate, or other prominent citizens, to nominate a number of those present, who would be thoroughly representative of the various parts of the district. These were examined collectively…On the whole this method of taking evidence was the only way of dealing with a large number of witnesses in a reasonable time (Union of South Africa 1923:4).

Notwithstanding the example set many decades ago, recent responses to drought reveal a lack of awareness of the need for a broadly informed assessment of drought. In response to the ENSO-driven drought in 2015/16, for example, a number of scientists following a meeting of the annual South African Society for Atmospheric Sciences conference held in November 2015 met with the South African Weather Service, the government entity responsible for defining a severe drought situation. This meeting propelled a response for the growing drought crisis in the country. Some scientists urged for the release of a ‘statement’ that would make it more explicit to the nation what indeed the science experts knew about the ENSO. As a result, a press release (driven largely by concerned scientists) culminated in the release of an ‘officially’ endorsed statement that outlined what was known about ENSO and where more research was needed (CSIR 2015). The statement, however, only described ENSO as the key cause of drought impact. Social and development issues and concerns were not a focus.

The lead author of this article participated in this process and has found it interesting to see how the various actors have been dealing with the growing drought challenge in the country, how drought is being framed and whose voices have been considered regarding drought responses and interventions. A strong natural ‘science’ perspective dominates. There is little time to reflect on how the action and process to ‘call a drought’ are undertaken and indeed, who should be consulted in such processes.

The Western Cape’s more recent controversial drought planning, for example, reveals a continued, one-sided response to drought management. Despite the gathering of interested parties through the convening of a “Water Indaba”, which culminated in a series of meetings in March 2017 attended by the municipal leaders, the voices of citizens were not profiled. Civil society was not present at these meetings, where immediate and longer-term drought solutions were discussed (Diener 2017). Around the same time, the City of Cape Town assembled its own Water Resilience Advisory Committee, which was promoted as representing civil society, business and government, to discuss solutions to the water crisis (De Lille 2017), but with limited civic engagement.

Excluding civil society from drought risk reduction efforts comes at a cost. A lack of trust in leadership, for example, has been shown to relate directly to increased residential water use (Jorgensen et al. 2009). In cities such as Cape Town, where an over 50% reduction in water use became an essential drought mitigation measure, low community buy-in created a very real threat to sustainable water supply. In fact, the lack of civic buy-in is evidenced in average water usage citywide consistently exceeding target levels (De Klerk 2018). Resulting from this perceived alienation, a number of civil society action groups mobilised around the water crisis. These criticised and rejected Cape Town’s leadership during the drought (VOCFM 2018; Herman 2018). This sentiment reflects broader failures in drought mitigation and resilience planning in South Africa.

Such examples reveal the importance of ‘softer’ (sic) approaches to understanding drought often side lined in favour of the ‘harder’, technical responses to drought. What is actually causing drought impact? Who calls the shots when a drought eventually becomes a crisis? Who are the actors that are engaged and whose opinion matters? Citizen science, public and local knowledge(s), and the role of values, beliefs and assumptions in shaping and framing drought response, we argue, also need focussed attention. To what extent have such approaches been used in South Africa?

By examining past drought experiences, as others have done in international contexts (Garcia 1981; Sainath 1996; Davies 2002; Nelson and Finan 2009; Chappells and Medd 2012; Hurlbert and Montana 2015), successes and failures in the science of ‘prediction’, as well as the messy mix of context and drivers of impact are revealed.

The 1990s drought story—a benchmark of more inclusive drought risk reduction processes

The occurrence, impacts and responses to the extreme drought in the early 1990s drew the line in the sand for local and regional drought risk governance (Benson and Clay 1994; Buckland et al. 2000; Vogel et al. 2010; Holloway et al. 2013). Coming at a time of major political change in the country, the drought acted as a catalyst, calling into question drought response and management, including social justice issues and the reach of drought interventions to the most vulnerable populations. There was little idea at the time of who the most vulnerable were, where they were located and what their experiences were.

The drought discourse up to this time, driven by a strong white-centred, large-scale commercial agricultural narrative, was found wanting as the gaze of the newly elected policy makers (many of whom had been activists and champions of anti-apartheid in the past) had to confront a growing El Niño/ENSO crisis. Most notably, the voices of the ‘most vulnerable’ were missing from the national discussions occurring at the time:

Rather than addressing the development needs of rural communities and thereby preparing for the next drought, the government’s drought relief programme has focussed almost exclusively on supporting white commercial farmers (Adams 1993:42).

In response to the ‘perfect storm’ that was brewing nationally at the time, a forum was established: the National Consultative Forum on Drought. The aim of this forum was to help enable a better understanding of the risks the nation and individuals were facing. The forum was convened by Kagiso Trust and the Independent Development Trust in July of 1992 (Adams 1993), but in many ways it mimicked the wider brokering efforts for a national democratic plan that was ongoing for the nation. Participants in the Drought Forum included various government actors (e.g. African National Congress), trade union groups (Congress of the South African Trade Unions), the Development Bank of Southern Africa, civic society organisations, academics and other experts.

A major focus of the forum was to raise the voice of those at the ‘bottom’, in particular, the rural poor who had previously been largely forgotten in drought policy, relief and intervention. To this end, the Drought Forum, through various efforts, linked up with other emerging development forums in the country at the time (e.g. National Housing Forum, National Economic Forum). At various levels, it was also focussed on building capacity in communities. Such linkages were critical in helping the newly formed government in South Africa to capture the inputs from organised rural people as a means to ensure the reconstruction and development agenda of the country at the time (Abrams et al. 1992).

Flowing from this ‘space’ for dialogue, often flavoured by vigorous contestation, a number of interventions occurred. Drought vulnerability hot spots were mapped, led by various teams, including what were known as ‘Red-R’ engineers and Task Forces. These teams tried to identify areas impacted by the drought, many in former homeland areas that had been underserviced with water infrastructure and other services. A drought secretariat was established with offices in Johannesburg. Regular meetings, where both government and the public(s) were invited to offer inputs and experience of the unfolding drought, occurred at these premises. These offices also produced regular drought reports and updates (Abrams et al. 1992; Adams 1993; Land and Agriculture Policy Centre 1993; Vogel 1994).

Various activities and processes (of which the lead author was a part), as well as numerous reports (e.g. field reports such as that by Hodgkin and Anders 1992 for the South Coast area of KwaZulu-Natal) were thus catalysed. Also included were the activities of the various task forces (e.g. the Water Supply Task Force) and various regional drought and development fora, including several rural development fora (in the then Northern, Eastern and Western Transvaal, Orange Free State, Northern Cape, Border/Kei and Natal/KwaZulu-Natal) (Adams 1993). These fora were driven both by the pressing drought and by the awakened sense of a ‘political moment’ and influenced by a significant ‘turn’ in history (the dismantling of apartheid):

The purpose of the Forum is not to implement relief or development programmes itself, but rather to bring together various actors and stakeholders in rural areas in order to facilitate resources reaching rural communities and to influence national policy (Drought Monitor, July/August 1993:1).

The forum eventually developed into a Consultative Forum on Drought and Rural Development and ultimately the National Rural Development Forum with various actors, including a strong focus on rural actors, represented in the National Housing Forum, the National Economic Forum and the Standing Committee on Water and Sanitation (Drought Monitor Sept/Oct 1993). Much of the work of the forum provided the basis for the work eventually undertaken in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), a key programme of the newly established government.

It is difficult to trace for how long the efforts of the Drought Forum endured. The change from the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy in the mid-1990s, and its role in subsequent droughts, have not been examined in detail. Nevertheless, the forum has been described as playing a critical part in drought risk reduction and governance of the country at the time.

A recent report conducted for OXFAM would suggest, however, that not much has been learnt from the 1990s experience. In the report, the official framing of the current drought as an act of God, it is argued, continues to misdirect public attention from governance failures, such as entrenched unequal access to resources (Hornby et al. 2016). This report further suggests that the impacts of the past few years of drought in some areas are a result of “South Africa’s failure to address structural vulnerabilities”, and were “not simply a consequence of poor rainfall” (Hornby et al. 2016:8). The authors further argue that the official and popular definitions of drought are too narrow to describe the impacts. Defining drought as a “singular event rather than as an extended, multi-factor process” (Hornby et al. 2016:8) limits drought response interventions that further exacerbate the plight of the poor and most vulnerable.

So what? What have we learnt?

Over 20 years later, the country is in a similar situation to that experienced in the 1990s (drought coupled with heightened political uncertainty, weakened government and governance). Has anything been learnt from the lessons of the past? More critically, why did the remarkable ‘space’ (the forum) that was opened up in 1994, close down?:

The formation of this type of inclusive structure is unique in the history of drought response in South Africa. Important gains were made in bringing civil society together with government, particularly in policy intervention (Adams 1993: 45).

As indicated above, the National Drought Forum raised the voices of the rural poor into the Drought Policy framing agenda. Across a number of scales, regional to local, rural people and the factors linked to their vulnerability (e.g. poverty, water, access to resources) were all profiled. Through these efforts, the framing of the RDP was embedded for a time in the governance strategies of the country. Notions of vulnerability, particularly for the rural poor, were also taken up into various pieces of subsequent legislation (e.g. the National Disaster Management Plans). However, as Hornby et al. (2016) show, understanding how drought is lived out by the rural poor is still inadequately understood and researched in South Africa.

The process and creation of a collective space to engage with drought and climate extremes in a more inclusive way, set up in the early 1990s (which was an early reflection of transdisciplinary science, cf. Swilling 2014), focussing on science, policy and practice (e.g. scientists, government, civic society, trade unionists etc.), have unfortunately largely disappeared. The Drought Forum closed down over the years, as the drought came to an end and other priorities arose. The National Disaster Management Centre, drawing on various pieces of legislation (e.g. the Disaster Management Act 2002 and National Disaster Management Framework 2005), has tried to continue the ‘thinking of the time’ and to assist various levels of government in dispensing drought relief in response to the current drought. Much institutional hopscotch has, however, taken place across and between tiers of government (Baudoin et al. 2017). Government departments have had to reprioritise internal existing grants, capital budgets and programs. The conflicted concerns and contestations of varying political alignments (currently playing out in the case of the Western Cape), delayed early warning responses and the time it takes to reprioritize relief (across and between scales), has resulted in a reactive response to drought rather than a risk reduction approach as called for in the acts.

The absence of several inclusive platforms and processes for wide engagement, similar to the National Consultative Forum of the past, has resulted in a frantic scurrying to create new spaces to debate the implications of the drought. The recent formation by the Water Research Commission, for example, of the Water Sector Advisory Panel on Weather and Climate (Naidoo 2018) could be enhanced by delegates drawn from the South African Water Caucus and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, which is focussed on drought and systematic reform driven by citizens (Satgar 2018).

These responses and forums are, however, responses generated by periods of ‘crisis’. We also urgently need to find more sustainable ways of ensuring ongoing critical engagements, even when the drought is over. This will require more intensive research and systemic change (DiMP 2012). Such a call was made in the early 1990s:

In the long-run, however, development of rural areas is a much more effective strategy than responding every fifth year with food packages, short-term job schemes and emergency tanks of water. South Africa is a dry country […].We must begin to prepare for the next drought, even as we continue with emergency relief (Drought Monitor June 1993).

Extreme drought and its impacts cannot be dealt with in a linear fashion isolated from the complex, ‘messy’ realities in which drought usually expresses itself. Despite the gains made in the 1990s by the Consultative Drought Forum, the detailed need for ongoing investigation into droughts, that includes inputs from a wide variety of societal actors, clearly remains essential:

  1. (a)

    Drought is the subject of multiple framings and values (all socially, culturally and politically imbued). As has been shown in this article, a very strong framing of drought has been historically dominated in South Africa by a focus on meteorological and agro-meteorological drought and more recently as a technocratic response. Expanded drought framings that include notions of vulnerability for the poor were placed on the agenda in the 1990s. Captured in the National Disaster Act, this expanded framing is present in policy but, as this article has tried to show, is not present in drought response planning as seen in the most recent response to the drought. The varying responses in the Western Cape and in other areas of the country appear to have been more reactive than well planned and thought through.

  2. (b)

    Drought cannot be separated into a ‘meteorological silo’ when trying to devise interventions. The need to both frame and enable interactions for drought as a development issue is also required, rather than just a focus on reactive actions as a consequence of drought.

  3. (c)

    The social and political interactions that drought unveils focus attention on acknowledging and understanding such dimensions together with the complex and technical issues involved in the modelling of the meteorological hazard and risk.

  4. (d)

    Creating spaces to find out what the public(s) is thinking, doing, understanding and seeking, including the ethics of such research and activity, is fundamental. How this knowledge, together with science and expert knowledge, can be melded into creative and sustainable engagements is a key challenge.

Concluding discussion

Extreme droughts, such as the recent drought in the region and country in 2015–2017, and the ongoing drought in Cape Town, reveal current underlying weaknesses in drought planning. One of the key weaknesses in responding to, or planning for, wicked problems such as drought is to oversimplify the problem as only meteorological, as well as to adopt a technical focus with limited technical skills to act. The record-breaking drought in Cape Town and surrounds, ongoing at the time of writing, reveals the complexity of the behaviours, perceptions and narratives that begin to emerge and entrench certain drought responses.

Drought has been a feature of southern Africa for centuries. Climate change and climate variability highlight the need for the adaptive management of drought risks, particularly processes, practices and skills (Lemos et al. 2007; Cornell et al. 2013; Pearce et al. 2013). In this article, we have argued that the current, ‘narrow’ framings of drought in South Africa have unfortunately replaced the more ‘expansive’ notion that began to emerge in the 1990s. Drought, its conceptualisation, causes and responses, all need to be re-thought and re-imagined with a range of actors (El Sawah et al. 2013; Vogel et al. 2014). Social science methods such as grounded theory (Pearce et al. 2013), understanding governance approaches (Loorbach and Rotmans 2010) and actor networks (Cleaver 2012) could contribute a depth of insight into effective drought risk reduction.

A limitation to current drought responses in South Africa stems, however, from science still being viewed as ‘good’, and problems in the science-policy process are viewed as originating from a knowledge deficit in the end (sic) users. Social learning methodologies that emphasise the opening up of knowledge systems to create more equitable spaces and processes where honest engagements can occur (water dialogues, forums such as the drought forum of the 1900s and other platforms) may address this gap (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007; Tschakert and Dietrich 2010; Ison et al. 2014; Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2015).

Finally, the need for more reflexive and critical enquiry is vital if we are to begin to navigate our way ‘safely’ into a future challenged by climate, sustainable development and disasters. Extreme ‘events’ such as droughts reinforce the need to move beyond current approaches of climate risk management. In addition to addressing uncertainties, ambiguities and unknowns, we also need to seriously examine the contested political processes and ethical concerns that block and continue to blind and constrain us to narrow drought management approaches. Careful interrogation of those processes that have a role in shaping drought and periods of crisis, particularly those processes that are socially generated (Mehta 2010), is also needed.

Understanding short-term shocks and longer-term stresses is a critical defining feature that must be considered in the evolving climate change adaptation discourse in the country (Lemos et al. 2007; Cornell et al. 2013; Pearce et al. 2013; Swilling 2014; Vogel et al. 2014), but, equally critical is engendering a more systemic and socially relevant approach. Taking such an approach may mean finding ways both to learn from the past and also to respond for (note not to) climate resilient futures, if South Africa is to develop an effective and socially inclusive response to droughts.


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Thanks to Prof Willem Landman (University Pretoria), Dr. Debra Roberts (EThekwini Municipality, Co-chair Working Group II, AR6), Mr. Koos Van Zyl (AgriSA) and Dianne Callear (actively involved in the National Consultative Forum on Drought) and others interviewed, for their valuable comments and suggestions. Thanks to Dyani Jeram for proof reading and to Lyla Mehta for earlier comments on drafts. The valuable inputs of reviewers greatly improved this article.

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Vogel, C., Olivier, D. Re-imagining the potential of effective drought responses in South Africa. Reg Environ Change 19, 1561–1570 (2019).

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  • Climate change and climate variability
  • Drought governance
  • Climate variability and uncertainty
  • Science-policy-practice interface