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Southern Africa's Options Are Drying Up

6 MINS READMar 8, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia are all suffering equally as a persistent drought and low commodity prices put a strain on national resources.

Extreme drought and low commodity prices are crippling economies across southern Africa. For much of the past decade, China's rapid growth led to a massive demand for raw materials, the export of which African governments rely on for revenue. But as China's economy has slowed, global demand for those materials has plateaued, causing prices to drop. Because of their heavy dependence on commodities-based revenue, southern African governments have been among the hardest hit by low prices, especially as some producers have been forced to scale back output. As if this were not bad enough, the worst drought in more than three decades is threatening the region's food security. Together, the forces of nature and market have given southern Africa a particularly bleak economic outlook over the coming year.

In response to economic uncertainty, migration from poorer countries could increase as people seek better opportunities in the region's biggest and most stable power: South Africa. However, South Africa is poised to fare no better than its neighbors, and an influx of immigrants will only exacerbate Pretoria's existing problems, including the long-term strain on its water resources

Last year was difficult for commodity exporters around the world. The prices of many commodities, including coal, iron ore, copper and gold, dipped below even their 2014 levels. As they fell, many mining companies were forced to make cutbacks or temporarily halt activity. For instance, in Zambia, where copper production accounts for about 75 percent of export revenue, international mining giant Glencore suspended operations at its Mopani copper mines for 18 months in September 2015. Meanwhile, layoffs, cutbacks and closures have hurt Botswana's diamond industry, Zimbabwe's chrome and steel sectors, and South Africa's platinum production.

Now, the companies that managed to weather these poor conditions are struggling to cope with the additional damage caused by the region's ongoing drought. Zambia's copper industry, like the rest of the country, relies on hydropower for most of its electricity needs. When power supplies to copper producers were slashed by 30 percent last summer, companies had to import more expensive energy sources to make up for the loss. Water levels at the Kariba Dam, a shared resource with Zimbabwe and Zambia's principal generator of hydroelectricity, remain dangerously low, and Zambia is working to find a contingency plan to address its growing electricity deficit. The reservoir impounded by Botswana's Gaborone Dam saw its water levels plummet to less 2 percent of its capacity in December, and authorities in both Botswana and South Africa have begun to restrict water usage. 

These false color images, which show parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are not visible to the human eye, depict Victoria Falls and its surrounding area on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe in January 2014 and January 2016.

The region's mining industries are not the only ones suffering, either. The drought has destroyed harvests across southern Africa, forcing afflicted countries to increase food imports. Some, like South Africa, have more means than others to buy food from foreign markets. But even Pretoria's budget will be strained by the higher import bill as its economy teeters on the edge of recession. For poorer countries, the consequences will be harder to bear. Zambia may have to postpone plans to expand its agricultural sector in an effort to diversify away from copper, and Zimbabwe will likely have to rely on international aid to survive the drought. Indeed, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has already appealed to the international community for $1.5 billion in assistance, and the United States has promised to provide $32.5 million in aid by June. 

Coping With the Political Fallout

Such dire circumstances will undoubtedly prompt some social reaction in these countries, though it may not come in the form of violence. Zambia, for example, has a history of political upheaval, but it has never seen a civil war. Its people have a culture of complying to support the political system, so while the party in power may change during Zambia's election later this year, the transition will probably be smooth. It is also unlikely that Zambian officials will choose to nationalize the country's mining industry. The last time the government controlled the sector, it collapsed, making nationalization an untenable response for both the government and the population.

It is less clear how Zimbabwe will respond to its economic troubles. Mugabe is 92 years old, and the question of who will replace him is still unanswered. However, several factors suggest that any public pushback to food scarcity and a floundering economy will not be directed toward the government. A disconnect exists between the Zimbabwean people and their leaders, and societal expectations of the government meeting its obligations are low. Efforts to confront politicians about poor governance have made little headway, and many citizens feel a sense of fatigue when it comes to Zimbabwean politics. Instead of relying on the government, much of the population depends on subsistence farming and remittances from family members working abroad to survive. Therefore, Zimbabweans are more likely to try to leave the country than they are to launch an uprising.

And most of these migrants will probably head to the same place: South Africa. In 2015, nearly 500,000 Zimbabwean immigrants traveled to South Africa, a figure that will likely stay the same, if not increase in 2016. However, there is no guarantee that this year's immigrants will be able to stay. When scores of Zimbabweans fled economic hardship in the 2000s, Pretoria eventually sent many of them back home because they failed to qualify as refugees. Now, at a time when jobs are scarce and social welfare is limited, Pretoria may be faced with outbreaks of xenophobic violence against African immigrants, especially those living in South Africa's poorer towns.

At the same time, Pretoria is trying to cope with many of the same problems as its neighbors. Low commodity prices and the possibility of recession are weighing on South Africa's economy. Like many in its region, South Africa — traditionally a corn exporter — will have to import millions of metric tons of its staple grain over the course of 2016. Along with insufficient infrastructure and intermittent power outages, these problems have drained the government's resources. Meanwhile, the long-term stress on South Africa's water resources will only get worse as the drought and other pressing short-term issues take their toll. For South Africa's ruling party, which has always walked a fine line between maintaining popular support and protecting the country's mining companies, social discontent stemming from economic deterioration could threaten leaders' grip on power.

On its own, water scarcity is rarely the driving force behind social, political and economic crises. But within the perfect storm of drought, low commodity prices and historical poverty that southern Africa is now seeing, it can easily aggravate the problems already burdening the region.

Editor's Note:

This is the 14th installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world.

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