Deepening droughts hinder efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa

By Melany Markham

Thandi sits with a group of men and women under the shade of a large tree in Hluhluwe, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal province in the northeastern corner of South Africa. Hluhluwe is a poor community struggling to contend with eight years of drought, high unemployment, rising poverty and some of the highest HIV rates in the country.

Once rich and fertile and capable of producing bountiful crops, the soil is now bone dry. Without water, the community's crops and gardens won't grow. Without these vital fruits, vegetables and grains, people aren't able to get the nutritious foods they need to stay healthy. And in a community affected by HIV and AIDS, this has devastating consequences.

"The ground used to be soft and easy to dig by hand; water was freely available just under the surface and food was plentiful; there was a lake nearby that provided fish for us to eat," Thandi says. "But now the land is dry and hard and there is no water under the surface; even the lake has dried up."

Thandi says rainfall has become more erratic over the last few decades, occurring less frequently and for shorter periods. Other members of the community concur. The seasons are not the same as they used to be; winter is not as cold now and summer rains are more erratic. People here have experienced droughts and floods for as long as they can remember, but since the mid-1990s they have noticed a gradual drying of the land. Even the rainwater tanks that were installed as a solution to the problem now stand dry.

Although Hluhluwe's people know the climate is changing, they have not heard about global warming, nor do they have any knowledge about the current global debates on these issues.

For the men and women of Hluhluwe, one thing is clear?they desperately want to learn how to adapt to the changes in climate in the longer term. At the moment they are simply trying deal with the prolonged drought conditions as best they can, by doing what they have always done but on a reduced scale. They make their gardens smaller, grow different types of crops and walk further to collect water?but these are short-term coping mechanisms, not long-term solutions.

If current trends continue, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, sub-Saharan Africa will be 2-4 degrees warmer by 2050, and have 10 percent less rainfall. There will be more extreme events such as drought and floods and the length of the growing season will shorten even further.

"We need water pipes," Thandi says. "We need to learn how to look after the land and adapt to the drier conditions; we need to grow more drought-tolerant crops and vegetables. We need to learn more about climate change, and we need training in how we can speak up on these issues."

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