Devastating Drought

Devastating Drought

Drought is an innocuous little word. Consisting of one syllable, it is defined as “a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time (usually a season or more), resulting in a water shortage” or “a period of drier-than-normal conditions”. Simply words on paper – which provide little real comprehension of the awful reality on the ground.

The zebras migrate to the Chobe region every year – this year there is no grass waiting for them…

I am currently situated in Kasane, Botswana running a Wildlife Film School for a couple of months. On the banks of the mighty Chobe River to be precise. Except that this year, it is somewhat less mighty. In passing, one of our local field guides made what I thought to be a cavalier a comment that by the end of August we are going to be filming elephants dying in great numbers. I was wrong. There was nothing casual about his comment. Which got me to thinking and researching. As a rule, we sit cocooned in our suburban bliss. Whilst some may argue that it is not necessarily all that blissful (perhaps a topic for another day), one simply cannot begin to comprehend the horror that occurs in nature when a true drought takes place. 

A beautiful kudu bull finding whatever remnants of grass he can.

The World Food Programme website reported that, on the 5th June 2024, a “joint call was made by the UN, NGOs, regional and national authorities, humanitarian and development partners during a briefing on the emergency in Southern Africa, held in Pretoria, South Africa, to highlight the severe impacts of El Niño and the climate-driven crisis. This follows the launch of a regional appeal in May seeking $5.5 billion to provide urgent lifesaving assistance, to help with recovery and long-term climate resilience. The unfolding impact of this El Niño phenomenon, which started globally in July 2023, has led to a severe rainfall deficit across the Southern African region, with temperatures five degrees above average. The region experienced its driest February in 100 years.”

A lioness and her cubs pause for a quick drink at a rapidly receding pan.

At least we are able to provide assistance to people. Before they die of thirst or hunger as a result of failing crops, somehow plans are made to provide water and food. I am in no way negating the impact of the drought on the inhabitants of Southern Africa, but I am saying it is greatly less than what is about to be experienced by the wildlife. 

Up here in Northern Botswana, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has declared the 2023-2024 season an “extreme agricultural drought year.” It follows that it is an ‘extreme drought year’ in all the National Parks, Reserves and Wildlife Management Areas as well, which constitutes 40% of Botswana’s land. That’s an inordinately large area. 

An article on the World Weather Attribution site states that “from January 2024, large parts of Southern Africa experienced significantly below average rainfall, with Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Mozambique and Botswana receiving less than 20 percent of the typical rainfall expected for February”. Less than 20 percent – which means 80 percent of their anticipated rains did not arrive. That’s a huge number, and El Niño is considered to be the key driver.

Whilst this herd of buffalo (which numbered well over 300) have found the waters of the Chobe, there is little to eat.

Consider the fact that global warming has surpassed the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, with January 2024 marking the hottest year on Earth since pre-industrial times. These rising temperatures are making environmental disasters (such as El Niño) worse, particularly in countries that have a water deficient to begin with. 

In Botswana, to use one example, approximately 70 percent of its territory is made up of the Kalahari Desert. So, these conditions have an extraordinary effect on the ground. In the Southern Hemisphere, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia are hit hardest by global warming, with the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SASSCAL) research showing a 6 percent increase in temperature by the second half of the 21st century if nothing is done about it now. So, if the world warms to about 3 degrees Celsius globally, in countries that are already hot, like Botswana (and obviously Namibia), the warming will be about 6 degrees Celsius. This could even mean serious damage to the legendary beef industry in Botswana – a market which amounts to US$906.30m in 2024. Beyond cattle dying from the drought, cattle feed will become prohibitively expensive too.

The “hill” in the background is just red sand…

Wild animals don’t have a hope in hell with this drought. The Boteti River, which runs through the Makgadikgadi National Park in north-eastern Botswana and serves as one of the animals’ main water sources, is completely dry. The Chobe River levels are significantly lower than usual, and the list just goes on and on… There is virtually nothing left for the herbivores beyond sand and bushes/leaves that are effectively inedible. Of course, the predators are going to have a field day… They won’t, however, be able to keep up with the carnage, and this will bring other issues created by the rotting carcasses.

This drought is also going to exacerbate the human/wildlife conflict. When animals are starving and dying of thirst, they are going to seek nourishment wherever they can find it. Crops from the villagers (who are experiencing their own issues) will be raided by elephants and others. With both people and wildlife both desperate for resources, the conflict is possibly going to reach an all-time high.

The spaces between the little trees is now completely devoid of grass.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this drought just might be part of the solution for the overly vast elephant herds of Botswana. However, drought is not selective, and massive amounts of other animals are also falling prey to these incredibly dry conditions. Nature always has a way of recovering, and weathering the challenges thrown at it. So yes, the overall species will survive, but on the ground, the horror is real as individuals die at a rapid rate. 

This once again highlights the need for us, as the guardians of the earth, to find urgent and widely encompassing ways to mitigate climate change!

These bulk grazers are going to have a particularly hard time of it…

Over the last week, dark clouds have filled the sky and the small of rain has been heavy on the breeze.

A macabre reminder of rains which will not return until, by all accounts, the summer is well on its way – in October or even as late as November. The rains could be as many as six months away…

Jacqui Ikin & the Cross Country Team

Share this post

Start typing and press Enter to search

Shopping Cart