Iâ€™m woken by the sound of rushing water. I get up and hang out of the window. A river rushing by? Indeed.
I have lived on dry river banks for many years, so itâ€™s a sound I know well. But now weâ€™re in a suburb of Windhoek. Itâ€™s cool and damp and you might think you were in a Cape Town winter, as it never seems to stop raining. Yet this is March and Windhoek is the capital of the driest country in the Sahel.
Summer is our rainy season, but rainfall figures have gone off the charts! Or is it becoming the norm?
1.2 degrees up
Namibia has always been a dry, hot desert country, with over 300 days of sunshine a year â€“ one of the reasons why itâ€™s such a popular tourist destination.
A report by the government in 2008 indicated that average temperatures in Namibia rose by 1.2 degrees in the last century. The rainfall is often sparse and erratic with an average of
- 50mm/year in the desert areas
- less than 20mm/year at the coast
- up to 600mm/year in the far north eastern regions (a mere 8% of the country).
Namibia is the driest country south of the Sahara. Prolonged and excessive flooding in the north of the country has affected the livelihood of nearly 200 000 people this year.
In recent years the dry southern parts have been getting drier and the central and northern parts have had more rainfall, alternating with years of drought. Windhoek has recorded the highest monthly rainfall figure in January 2011, since the Windhoek Met office started keeping records in 1893. This year we had a whopping 320mm, whereas the average for January is 85.6mm. It looks like we might exceed previous records this year.
Mining also ruins water
Most scientists agree that the change in Namibiaâ€™s rainfall is almost certainly a result of the global warming phenomena.
As in any country, there are also internal factors which place strain on the countryâ€™s water supplies.
- Recent years have seen increased mining activities. Rising prices and demand for Uranium have resulted in the development of several new mines in already water-strapped areas, namely the semi-desert Erongo region.
- One such mine, near Usakos, wasgranted a permit to extract 1000 cubic metres of water per day, valid for 2 years1 730 000 cubic metres over two years could have a severe effect on the environment and wildlife of the area.
- Namibiaâ€™s population is also steadily increasing with more and more people moving from the rural areas to the cities, especially Windhoek, the capital. It is estimated that by 2030, 25% of the population will reside in Windhoek, placing enormous stain on the cityâ€™s water resources.
All Namibians are already feeling the impact of global warming Apart from mining, the other three main pillars of the economy are fishing, agriculture and tourism.
- The cold Benguela current along Namibian coast is seeing a depletion in the amount of available fish, as the sea temperature increases. One source predicts a drop in fish stocks by as much as 50%.
- Flooding in the northern rural areas has ruined crops for thousands of people again this year, whose livelihood depends on subsistence farming.
- An IIED report from 2007 showed Namibiaâ€™s temperatures are increasing at 3 times the global average, which will make Namibia an uncomfortably hot tourism destination. As Europe gets warmer, thatâ€™s not in our favour.
Tourists have hectic footprint
Namibiaâ€™s European niche market has more disposable income, but is also becoming more aware of the ecological impact of long-haul travel. At a recent lecture by Dr. Strasdas from Berlin I learnt that:
- 75% of carbon emissions from one European travellerâ€™s trip to Namibia is derived from air travel!
- one flightâ€™s emissions from Frankfurt to Windhoek is equal to the average Namibianâ€™s car usage for one year!
- research shows that 70% of Germans tourists prefer to choose eco-friendly options where they can.
Climate change affects the natural environment most of all, although it is slower and not always immediately apparent. Humans can for the most part adapt and even move away to continue elsewhere, but the environment has to cope, evolve or be evicted.
- Quiver trees on the red-data plant list are thought to be dying prematurely due to drought. For a species already living at the edge of its dry limit, a shift in rainfall patterns could just tip them over the edge.
- Animals have to adapt to the north-eastern shift in desertification and desert-adapted species, such as springbok and gemsbok, will flourish while zebra and giraffe will feel the pinch.
Poor will suffer most
As we look to the future, Namibia will need to attract long-haul visitors with sustainable eco-tourism practices, and find ways to off-set those carbon emissions. Weâ€™ll need to focus on poverty alleviation, since itâ€™s always the poor who suffer most from global warming. Weâ€™ll also need to find ways to conserve and recycle water. But thereâ€™s some good news in that department which weâ€™ll examine next time.
As I finish writing, the rain continues to fall, pushing figures over the 1200mm mark in Windhoek. Unsuspecting or perhaps careless drivers are once again caught in the flood waters and looking from my window I can see a bakkie upturned in the noisily rushing river that develops near our house.
By Annabelle Venter – April 2011
Photos: Devastation and displaced people in the wake of the Namibian flood of 2009.