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Nature Played A Part But We've Brought This Drought Down On Ourselves

Drought in the time of the anthropocene

23/11/2016 05:55 SAST
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Drought in South Africa as not just an environmental issue but a human one too.

For some time now, South Africa has been gripped by an intense drought resulting from an El Nino weather pattern that is strangling southern Africa. In the years to come, if approaches taken by government and society are not dramatically adjusted, this drought could shake the foundations of society as a result of seriously compromised food security, shoddy energy infrastructures and depleted water reservoirs.

While news of the drought continues to dominate the headlines and airwaves with numerous indicators outlining the low level of dams and the varying degrees of water restrictions that may or may not be implemented, we as a society must consider that we do not experience drought equally. In many ways, this drought not only causes cracks in the ground of the arid interior of South Africa, but it also exposes the cracks embedded in our society.

We therefore need new ways of thinking about and framing discussions of the drought that emphasise how the existing inequalities of society are significantly enhanced by the effects of prolonged drought in South Africa, and the types of water restrictions implemented by government.

One of the ways we can begin to think different about drought, as well as other broader environmental issues that may arise in the future, is by engaging with the concept of the Anthropocene.

Over the past sixteen years, the Anthropocene has become a popular term for discussing and contemplating some of the significant environmental issues currently affecting the planet. Although definitions vary tremendously, it is best to think about this term as "a shorthand for this turbulent, momentous, unpredictable, hopeless, hopeful time" of extreme weather events and dramatic climate change, according to the environmental journalist Andy Revkin.

Despite its ambiguity, the Anthropocene is a concept that suggests the planet has entered into a new epoch in which human beings are the force driving the transformation of earth systems. For an example of what this concept means, consider the fact that humanity as a whole, manually excavates and moves more sediment per year, than all of the rivers on planet earth combined.

For an additional example of how to get a sense of what the Anthropocene means as a tangible term, consider the city of Johannesburg, which has the largest manmade forest in the world, and earlier this month experienced incredible flooding - this in the only major city in the world that is not situated next to a natural body of water. We have, in other words, created some of the conditions for "natural" disasters.

In the age of the Anthropocene - the age of humans - the idea of a natural world cannot be imagined without the influence of humanity because we are considered to be a geologic force in our own right.

As such, some of the traditionally neat separations we draw from to make sense of our experiences, such as that between the natural realm and the realm of humans no longer make sense. In the age of the Anthropocene - the age of humans - the idea of a natural world cannot be imagined without the influence of humanity because we are considered to be a geologic force in our own right. Thus, the world we live in and will continue to live in barring a major catastrophe, is the world that we have made, and not the world we have inherited.

With all of this information in mind, so much of the coverage of the drought in South Africa has been framed as an environmental issue—which it most certainly is. However, if we think about the drought in relation to the Anthropocene, what the traditional frame of an environmental issues fails to recognise, is that the environment is not separate from society; the environment makes society possible, because societies all over the world shape their environments, and without them, we could not exist. It is thus more effective to think of the drought in South Africa as not only an environmental issue, but also, and more importantly, as a human issue, with real human consequences.

There are three types of droughts. The first kind of drought is what is known as a meteorological drought, which is caused by a traditionally dry climate, something South Africans are familiar with. The second kind of drought is known as an agricultural drought, and is caused by low rainfall and a lack of groundwater. The final kind is considered a hydrological drought, which is caused by low dam and reservoir levels, as well as poor infrastructure. Each of type of drought feeds into existing socio-economic contexts, and intensifies broader inequalities.

If we thus frame the drought in terms of the new geologic age of the Anthropocene, we operate from the point of view that droughts are human issues just as much as they are environmental issues. What this frame makes clear are the failures of government to implement more proactive infrastructures and measures that help to not only reduce water consumption, but also to reduce the tremendous impact this drought has on poor communities with deteriorating infrastructures, and will have on the future shape of South Africa. Moreover, the idea of the drought as a human crisis encourages us to question the ethical value of practices those in the middle- and upper-classes have long felt to be a right: suburban gardening, the filling of pools and a lack of concern for where the water comes from. (On this note, one is reminded of the way in which the Katse Damn in Lesotho provides water to those primarily living in Johannesburg, much to the detriment of local communities and farmers.)

While it is quite clear that droughts are a kind of new normal in South Africa, and more generally in southern Africa, what will become less and less clear is the validity of our framing of the problem as a solely environmental one. It seems we have passed the point of praying for rain, or mandating various levels of water restriction, and instead, we must consider rethinking how the relationship between the environment and society enhances economic imbalances. Perhaps if we treat the environment as a human endeavour, we will come to better understand our intrinsic dependence on it.