Climate-displaced persons share their experiences with host communities amid water scarcity.

On bad days you can smell the horrible stench of sewage from a distance. A hot, oppressive wind blows through streets lined with garbage heaps. This is Huhudi, a township outside Vryburg in North West province. 

Like many other residents, the Reverend Gregor Mascher (51) struggles to survive. He has the added responsibilities of being a Lutheran priest, the father of one child and a poultry subsistence farmer. He once reared more than 200 chickens, but now has only 50.

A woman draws water from a communal tank on the roadside in Huhudi, Northwest province. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

“Raising chickens without water is not possible unless you find other means of providing water,” Mascher said. “And all the other means are more expensive.”

Professor Mulala Simatele, an environmental scientist at Wits University’s Global Change Institute, said, “Most people affected by these changes in climate, and water scarcity, are definitely the small-scale farmers; those able to grow just enough to feed themselves. If they have a surplus to sell, they can generate a small income. This they then use for other services such as paying for medical care, sending children to school and buying stuff they might not be able to manufacture themselves. So, that is the group most affected because they do not have enough resources to build their own adaptive capacity.”

“When I came here in 2016, water would come out of the tap for only four hours: two in the morning and two late in the evening,” Mascher said. He now accesses water at a sewage plant about 3km from Huhudi, and “also at a fire station at Morolong, but there is always more traffic there”.

For Huhudi residents, water is a pipe dream. Ironically, Huhudi is Setswana for ”running water”, yet residents have been without running water since 2017.

In a statement seen by Wits Vuvuzela, dated February 20, 2019, the Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati district municipality attributes water woes to inadequate rainfall, abnormal scorching temperatures and infrastructure challenges. That was three years ago, and since then residents feel that they have been hung out to dry.

How water scarcity exacerbates inequalities

While the effects of climate change such as water scarcity touch everyone, the extent of vulnerability between rural and urban residents differs significantly. While the wealthy buy water from tankers and dig boreholes for their swimming pools, poor residents in townships must choose between bribing the water tanker or having food. “But you cannot even eat, because when you eat you have to go to the toilet, and there is no water to flush with,” one resident said.

A similar scene is playing out across townships, villages and informal settlements in South Africa. Private tankers deliver water to residents who can afford to pay R300. Those who cannot pay are forced to get water from a waste treatment plant.

“When I came here in 2016, water would come out of the tap for only four hours: two in the morning and two late in the evening.”

Water and sanitation responsibilities in Huhudi fall under the Dr Ruth Mompati district municipality, but it has only two tankers that deliver water once a week to parched residents. Even these allegedly deliver water only to people who can pay a bribe, pitting neighbour against neighbour as residents accuse others of getting favours and special treatment.

Simatele said more people are moving from rural areas to cities as climate-change effects become more intense and frequent.

“South Africa is one of the driest countries in the world. In fact, as a country we rank as the 30th driest in the world.” Rural communities and townships are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Simatele said.

How South Africa is faring in terms of water scarcity 

The warnings are clear and they are supported by evidence: Data published on meteoblue meteorological service by the University of Basel in Switzerland shows that average temperature trends in Huhudi between 1991 and 2021 have steadily increased, while average total precipitation has continued to decline in the same period as conditions get warmer and drier due to climate change. The intensity and frequency of these effects are at a higher rate than in the periods before anthropogenic activity, Simatele said. 

“South Africa is still struggling with infrastructure to provide water, and this infrastructure was designed to supply water to a limited number of people. The number of people who demand access to water has increased, but the infrastructure has remained the same. That is a governance issue, because no investment is going into the water infrastructure to change and increase capacity to meet demand.”

Simatele said, “Israel is the second or third driest country in the world: It is a desert, but Israel is the largest producer of fresh vegetables and fruits in the world. How is that possible? It is a governance issue. If we invest in technology and innovative systems, South Africa is a great country and we can be greater if we have the right, proactive leadership and governance systems.

“We need to have leadership that understands the water sector and how to manage water services, increased infrastructure investment, and we need to start talking about very uncomfortable things: Most people in South Africa do not pay for water resources, but they demand them,” said Simatele.

Interestingly, a March 2022 article published by Mail & Guardian reported that in 2018 and 2019, as many as 3.4 million climate displacements occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. A 2021 Groundswell report by The World Bank indicated that by 2050 more than 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could be forced to migrate within their own countries or to neighbouring countries because of climate change.

In a News24 article published on June 27, University of Cape Town PhD candidate Ivan Katsere wrote that the unspoken but intentional meaning in the “Put South Africa First” discourse is the exclusion of black, non-South African “others”.

The spring rains were desperately awaited in Free state. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

“Zimbabweans and Mozambicans are being targeted and victimised by South Africans,” said Alex Nyathi (name changed to avoid reprisal), a 41-year-old Zimbabwean father of two who was forced to flee his country in 2000 because of political violence, economic collapse and drought.

Nyathi told Wits Vuvuzela, “It was very difficult because of the maize and mealie-meal. There was no white mealie-meal in Zimbabwe, only yellow.” He said it was time to migrate because people had no clue about what to eat.

First-hand experience of water scarcity and migration

Being undocumented has been hard for Nyathi. Police have sometimes arrested him and he lives in constant fear of being deported. He makes some money by fixing electronics and with odd jobs.

“After 22 years in South Africa, I am working everywhere. Today you can tell me I must go, but where must I go? Who is going to support my kids if I go? Nobody. My family, when I am gone to Zimbabwe, they have no food, no money for rent, and my wife passed away.”

Economic conditions often push migrants to find better opportunities. Researchers warn that as climate conditions change and water resources dwindle, people are more likely to move to regions perceived to have more.

Professor Loren Landau, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, said, “While an acute natural disaster is easy to identify as a source of displacement, more slow-onset climate change effects intersect with these other migration push factors.”

Ultimately, the decision to migrate depends on various factors, including level of service delivery and socioeconomic status. Despite the significant correlation between climate-change effects like protracted drought, and migration, however, it is often difficult to pinpoint causality.

Nyathi was forced to leave his home in Nkayi, Matabeleland North, as it was among the hardest hit by famine and the 40 000 residents were starved because they had voted overwhelmingly for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In 2000 the MDC-led anti-constitution campaign thrashed the ruling Zanu-PF in a national referendum. To remain in power, Zanu-PF assaulted and tortured MDC party members and their supporters. This led to many Zimbabweans fleeing to neighbouring countries such as South Africa. Nyathi still has scars on his body from the violence he suffered at the hands of Zanu-PF members.

The use of the drought-induced famine as a political weapon illustrates the complex nature of migration.

Landau said, “Often, these additional factors take precedence over the more gradual climate effects such as drought. As a result, climate change may act as a threat multiplier.”

In her 2014 thesis, The Place of International Law and Relevant Bodies in Addressing Climate Change Displacement – The Move Towards Cooperation, Ernesta Swanepoel, an environmental lawyer, argued that often the environment is not the only migration driver and other contributing factors, such as lack of government capacity to respond to disasters, must be considered.

Disaster relief is increasingly strained and unable to reach most residents, increasing their vulnerability to climate effects. This leaves them feeling abandoned, depressed and fighting over scarce water resources.

In his 2021 article, Xenophobia-Induced Disaster Displacement in Gauteng, South Africa: A Climate Change Litigation Perspective, Wits law Professor Jonathan Klaaren notes that the contribution of water scarcity to migration from neighbouring Zimbabwe is fragmented and unclear, but significant.

The department of performance, monitoring and evaluation told parliament on October 11, 2022, that failure to invest in maintaining ageing water supply infrastructure amplified communities’ vulnerability to climate disasters. According to the latest statistics from Stats SA, South Africa is home to around 3.95 million immigrants, making up 6% of the country’s 60-million population. The number is expected to rise across southern Africa due to climate factors.

Not everyone who might need to migrate can do so, for various reasons including age, gender and poverty. A 2017 World Bank report, Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, by researchers Stephane Hallegatte and Julie Rozenberg, confirms that poor people are more susceptible to being heavily affected by climate change.

Professor Imraan Valodia, director of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at Wits University, agrees. He said forced migration is challenging and imposes massive socioeconomic disruption on households.

“The impact of climate change accentuates all of this, because it is now more difficult for vulnerable households to eke out a living using land and natural resources they have access to,” Valodia said.

Any solution to water scarcity must empower residents through better management of water resources, with effective climate-mitigation strategies for climate-displaced persons and host populations.

Huhudi residents are not short of innovative sustainable solutions, with some proposing a pool fund where community members donate money towards a borehole, from which everyone can get water. Such plans are critical to achieving the National Development Plan 2030 and avoiding future Day Zeros. Climate change is the crisis of our time, and we must act urgently and together to save the planet.

FEATURED IMAGE: Empty water containers in Mohlaletse, Limpopo. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi