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Adapting to climate, water and health stresses: insights from Sekhukhune, South Arica
December 2006
Gina Ziervogel, Anna Taylor, Frank Thomalla, Takeshi Takama and Claire Quinn
Stockholm Environment Institute

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges permission from Ms Gina Ziervogel to post this report on the FANRPAN website.


Executive summary

Sustainable development and poverty reduction policy needs to be better supported by science that is policy relevant and focuses on the needs of the poor and marginalised, and those that are vulnerable to a range of environmental and socio-economic stresses. Traditional interventions (such as food aid or project interventions in the form of external credit schemes or infrastructure) are increasingly being questioned as to their appropriateness and effectiveness in improving rural livelihoods. Although there is considerable emerging research that highlights the need to consider multiple threats to livelihoods, there is to-date only a limited understanding of the mechanisms of individuals, communities and authorities to respond to multiple stresses and of the factors enabling or constraining them. It is therefore necessary that a shift in development policy and intervention is supported by research that uncovers the nature of existing complex adaptive systems so that existing capacities and opportunities for adaptive actions can be supported rather than new measures being imposed.

The work presented in this report is aimed at improving the understanding of vulnerable and complex adaptive systems. The findings are based on fieldwork that focused on the district, municipal and village level in Sekhukhune District, South Africa. Previous research enabled the selection of two rural villages and associated municipalities to be the focus for exploring the interacting impacts of climate variability, water scarcity, and health issues. In order to identify and assess integrated and cross-sectoral adaptive management opportunities, an integrated analysis was undertaken of the exposure of livelihoods of vulnerable rural groups to water scarcity, climate variability, food insecurity and health risks and the impacts of these stresses at the individual, village, municipal and district levels. The study was framed by the following research questions:

  • How do people (at the village and municipal level) prioritise responses to multiple stresses?
  • How does the perception of the best response to stresses differ between the village and municipal level?
  • How can adaptation to stresses be linked to sustainable development initiatives?
  • How can an understanding of complex adaptive systems support more appropriate intervention in future?
In order to address these questions, an innovative and integrated methodological approach was developed that allowed the consideration of vulnerability to multiple stresses within an integrated assessment framework. This approach enabled us to explore how stresses interact at different scales and affect livelihoods as well as district development opportunities. It also led to adaptation strategies being elicited, both from an agency perspective at the individual/local scale and from an institutional perspective at the village and district levels, as well as the broader national context.

The methods used included both qualitative and quantitative approaches. The villages for indepth research were selected from previous household surveys undertaken as part of FIVIMS (Food insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping System), a project commissioned by the South African Department of Agriculture. Semi-structured household interviews were undertaken with the identified households and then focus group meetings, Discrete Choice Analysis (DCA), Stated Preference (SP) technique were undertaken at the village scale. Using DCA and SP methods supported by participatory methods were found to be an appropriate basis for the development of a methodological approach to assessing adaptation actions. Semi-structured interviews were used with key stakeholders at the municipal and district level government authorities. Combining qualitative and quantitative research methods and working at both the village and municipal scale addressed some of the methodological weaknesses inherent in each approach and therefore strengthened the results.

We engaged with a range of South African organisations including those involved in FIVIMS and two locally based organisations, RADAR and AWARD and established strong linkages to the EU-funded CAVES (Complexity: Agents, volatility, evidence and scale) project that addresses the complexity of social and environmental systems in a case study in Sekhukhune District. Working in close partnerships with communities, researchers and policy/decisionmakers was found to be a good way to facilitate the communication of different perceptions of, and means of adaptation to, multiple stresses between a range of stakeholders and to encourage and enable better co-ordination and integration of adaptation responses.

This work has generated a number of insights, both in terms of the perception of stakeholders at different levels as to their vulnerability to multiple stresses, what appropriate coping and adaptation mechanisms might be, and in terms of developing appropriate approaches and methodologies to assess vulnerabilities and adaptation decision-making. The results of this work are expected to be of considerable value to the South African Social Cluster on Food Security that brings together key representatives from different government departments as to the kinds of interventions likely to be appropriate to reduce vulnerability, support positive change and increase resilience.

Even though water stress is one of the key manifestations of climate variability and change in Sekhukhune District, it is generally not perceived as a climate issue alone. Rather, water scarcity is considered to be the result of a combination of insufficient and highly variable rainfall conditions, issues of equitable water resource management, and the absence of drinking water, bulk water and irrigation infrastructure that would enable the distribution of water to all rural villages and hospitals.

Many of the development issues in the district – the supply of basic services, irrigation for subsistence, small-scale market-oriented agriculture and commercial agriculture, and the expansion of the commercial mining sector - are highly dependent on water availability. The management of water resources is linked to livelihood security through direct impacts on agriculture and livestock at the individual and communal levels, and indirect impacts on employment opportunities and food prices. Food insecurity and a lack of money were identified as key concerns by many households. Most people interviewed highlighted the need to create employment opportunities and to improve water supplies for agricultural activities. However, the decisions relating to water use and distribution are made by stakeholders at the provincial and district levels and prioritise the growth of regional economic activities that do not necessarily reduce the high levels of poverty in rural communities, at least not in the shorter-term.

At the national and provincial levels there is awareness of the need to address climate impacts and adaptation and some assessments have highlighted the need for the development of adaptive strategies. However, no climate change impact and adaptation assessments have been undertaken at the district level to determine the implications for the water sector. At the local level there is evidence that people are developing adaptation strategies to changing patterns of water availability and the ever-prevalent stress of limited finance. People always have and will respond to stress in different ways but establishing the key adaptation strategies and set of actions associated with these strategies can help to provide a point of entry where support can be best utilized. If climate change accelerates, stress on rural livelihoods is likely to increase and it is critical that measures are put in place that support adaptation strategies that are climate-sensitive.

Because of an increase in the frequency of crop failures, many people are moving away from agriculture/horticulture and are instead seeking to engage in wage earning activities as an adaptation to water and climate stresses. As a consequence, less food is directly available to the household. People in the villages linked changes in food production and availability to decreased health, which is in turn linked to climate, water and economic/financial stresses.

The price and availability of food on the informal and formal market fluctuates (often linked to climate variability) and can decrease the accessibility and affordability of (nutritious) foods. Household’s spending patterns have changed and this can impact on the quantity and quality of food consumed (which is a particular concern for people living with HIV). Although HIV/AIDS was mentioned as a key stress at the municipal level, it was not mentioned as a key stress in the villages where we worked. However, people did talk about the increase in home-based carers in response to increased health-care problems. If this could become a paid, regulated and better supported system this might be a very effective and beneficial sector for job creation.

An important response to lack of employment within the village is to migrate, even though it is seen by many as a last resort. Young people particularly tend to migrate in the hope of finding employment in one of the cities or mining areas. Whilst many people still living in the villages are considering migration, some do not have the opportunity to do so due to financial constraints or the lack of social networks in the target areas. Widespread ruralurban migration contributes to the generation of a range of urban risks through the growth of unplanned informal settlements on marginal land and the implications this entails, such as fire and flood risks, health and safety concerns, the erosion of traditional social networks, and the additional strain on urban municipalities to meet basic services for a rapidly growing poor urban population. Migration – as a rural adaptation strategy - is therefore generating new vulnerabilities or exacerbating existing vulnerabilities elsewhere. These linkages have not yet been investigated in South Africa and need to be investigated further in future research.

Adaptation strategies often occur in highly constrained circumstances and municipal support is needed to build adaptive capacity and to facilitate village-level development. Improved social safety nets and micro-finance schemes that empower people and are sensitive to their needs rather than generating increased dependency might be one way to achieve this. At the same time economic opportunities need to be created locally. This could be done by stimulating local businesses, adding value to locally produce, and creating markets.

HIV/AIDS is of considerable national concern as it has many links to poverty, livelihood security and economic development. In Sekhukhune the figures are lower than the national average, yet much remains to be done to curb the spread of the disease. Due to the limited duration of this study, we were not able to gain much information about these issues at the village level. The government recognises the potential scale of the challenge, especially in the areas where the mining is expected to grow rapidly. It is critical that measures are put in place now to curb/minimise the potential negative impacts of the disease, otherwise it will undermine development in the long term.

There are differing perceptions regarding the nature and scale of challenges and how they should be addressed. While some of the prioritised issues are the same (e.g. the need for employment, addressing water constraints and the continued roll-out of basic services) the scale at which they are viewed and sought to be addressed is very different and there are limited attempts to bridge these scales.

The findings indicate that water scarcity and limited economic opportunities are two major constraints to development at both the village and district scale that undermines adaptive capacity. People to a large extent relate both climate stress and food insecurity back to these two dominant stressors. This highlights the need for integrated responses to support local adaptation that departs from hegemonic sectoral approaches. It also requires improved and increased communication between government and local communities to facilitate the integration of strategies being implemented at different scales and better align expectations. Municipal government needs to carefully assess the likely environmental, social and economic impacts of investing in different sectors, incorporating a view on climate change and prioritizing water saving and wealth distributing options with the aim of minimizing future vulnerability.

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