How does an agrarian economy survive without water?
The universal question on just about every Namibian’s mind is whether the spate of early rains heralds a good, or at least a normal season. Since we collectively regard an eager start to the rain season as a bad omen, perhaps it is not inopportune that we hold our horses, check our water consumption, and remain patient for just another three weeks.
As a comparison, the end of last year saw good, rather unexpected early rains. By the first week of December 2012, most districts in the northern half of the country approached a total rainfall reading of close to 100mm. Then it stopped for four months, with the only significant precipitation recorded on the Sunday of this year’s Easter weekend. These falls, however, were not nearly good enough to break the by then already crippling drought. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
I think the biggest observable exception of this drought compared to others is that it is spread over the entire country also affecting large areas in our neighbours’ territories, most notably the south of Angola, western Zambia, Botswana, and the Northern Cape and Northwest provinces in South Africa. It is truly a regional drought, exacerbated by the fact that it happened over a trans-national area where existence and enterprise, are largely agrarian. Thus, its impact is far more severe than reflected in statistics only.
Almost on a daily basis I meet people wanting to know about the expectations for the rain season that is on the doorstep. But since we are so superstitious about nature and its laws, perhaps I would not do anybody a favour were I too optimistic in my interpretation of current weather conditions.
The various dependable El Nino Southern Oscillation indices compiled by the American weather service and their counterparts in Australia, provide reason for hope, but a very cautious hope. The so-called ENSO multivariate index, compiled by the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, combines six measurable variables in the Pacific Ocean and usually serves as a fairly reliable leading indicator of what we can expect locally, about a semester later. This index moved strongly negative (which is positive for us) some three months ago, but has reversed that trend and is now only marginally negative (bad for us).
The authoritative Australian Meteorology Bureau compiles their own daily ENSO index comparing differences in barometric pressures between Taiti and Darwin, to the corresponding reading a month earlier. This gives a rather noisy, erratic index that is prone to large swings, but I have found over many years, that it provides a sort of reliable coincident indicator for current atmospheric conditions over Namibia. This index works opposite to the multi-variate ENSO index meaning when it is negative, it is also negative for us, and vice versa. The Aussie ENSO index has followed a progressively more positive trend since about June this year, but has also reversed course and turned tenaciously negative about a month ago. Over the past two weeks, it has turned positive again, but alas, also only marginally so.
Locally, the dearth of information, analysis and interpretation often makes me wonder what the experts at the Namibia Meteorological Service are doing. Its window to the public, the website at www.meteona.com is a disaster and it is only by a serious stretch of the imagination that one can regard this as a portal to a government agency that must take absolute front-stage in a dry country. At least that is my miserable outsider take on the outdated, unreliable information my own met service dishes up.
But back to the very serious question about rain, the lack of it, and the widespread drought. We can speculate about the new rain season, we can ask all sorts of questions, offer old wives tales, dig up some more substantial analysis, and everything we deem reasonable, but we can not change the prevailing weather patterns, nor the eventual outcome of the actual season.
Perhaps, from a policy point of view, the more sober approach would be to ask how we would survive a second, back to back, dry year. This is not unheard of in our history with several such examples over the last fifty years, where droughts continued for two, three and even five years. If it does not pan out this way then it is a major relief and it is good for the country. But if it does not rain well, then we are in for serious trouble, especially where mitigating measures apply. If we find it so hard to cope with one dry year, how are our institutions ever going to handle another one?
Even if it turns out to be just a normal year, the precipitation deficit is still so enormous, that it will feel like another dry year.