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Climate change implications for water resources in the Limpopo River Basin
IFPRI Discussion Paper 00961
April 2010
Tingju Zhu and Claudia Ringler

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) for this document


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Climate change is expected to significantly affect water availability and use, with implications well beyond the water sector alone. In fact, many of the most serious effects of climate change on nonwater areas are mediated via water (Rogers 2008). For instance, crop growth relies on soil moisture which comes from rainfall or irrigation water. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies food systems as a key area vulnerable to climate change, along with water and three other sectors (IPCC 2007). Obviously, the importance of water to food production cannot be overstated.

Agricultural water use in the developing world is expected to face serious water scarcity from the combined effects of climate change and intensified competition for water from other sectors. This is especially true for developing countries with arid climates, lagging water infrastructure development, and rapidly increasing populations (OECD 2008). In several dry regions of the world, water scarcity has become a limiting factor for economic development. The Limpopo River Basin in Southern Africa is such a region.

The Limpopo basin is located in Southern Africa and covers an area of 416,296 square kilometers (km2), spreading over four countries: Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (Figure 1). A large share of the basin lies in South Africa (45 percent), while the rest is divided roughly equally between Botswana (19 percent), Mozambique (21 percent), and Zimbabwe (15 percent). Total harvested crop area is 2.9 million hectares, and 91 percent of the area is cropped under rainfed conditions. The basin has a population of approximately 14 million, evenly divided between rural (52 percent) and urban (48 percent) areas (CPWF 2003).

The climate in the Limpopo River Basin ranges from tropical rainy along the coastal plain of Mozambique to tropical dry savannah and tropical dry desert further inland, south of Zimbabwe. Annual rainfall varies between 250 millimeters (mm) in the hot, dry western and central areas to 1,050 mm in the high-rainfall eastern escarpment areas. Rainfall is highly seasonal and unevenly distributed spatially, with about 95 percent occurring between October and April, typically concentrated in a number of isolated rain days and in isolated locations. Rainfall also varies significantly from year to year (CPWF 2003). These rainfall characteristics limit crop production because annual rainfall mainly occurs during a short summer rain season with high interannual variations. Flooding and droughts are major water-mediated impacts of climate change in the Limpopo River Basin. This paper focuses on the hydrological impacts of climate change and analyzes the potential consequences for irrigation.

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