Maipato Kesebang normally grows maize, jugo beans and sweet reed on her 20-hectare plot of land northwest of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. But last year, worsening drought and heatwaves destroyed much of her harvest.
“The little that grew feebly we just ate. Nothing was left for storage or to sell,” she said.
Usually when her crops fail she turns to collecting wild spinach to sell, to support her two sons. But even that is now disappearing as climate change brings harsher weather and more people turn to harvesting the vegetable to survive, she said.
So last year, for the first time, she signed up to Ipelegeng, a long-standing government safety net program that provides temporary jobs for those struggling to make ends meet.
Now she works one month out of four cutting back overgrown grass and trees, desilting dams and drains, collecting litter or cleaning streets.
She’d prefer to work every month – but demand is so high for the jobs that there aren’t enough slots, she said.
“We only work for a month, then we go home and wait for three months before we apply again. That’s because there are too many people now needing the relief,” said Kesebang, as she pulled weeds on her parched plot of land.
As harsher droughts and hotter weather linked to climate change ruin crops more frequently in Botswana, the country is facing a new challenge: growing demand for social assistance programs.
About 68,000 people worked for Ipelegeng as of March 2018, according to figures from Statistics Botswana, up from about 64,000 in March 2016. Of those on the rolls, about 47,000 were women, according to the agency.
To accommodate rising demand, Botswana’s government last August increased the number of Ipelegeng slots by 5,000, after declaring 2018-2019 an expected drought year.
That will cost the country an extra $2.7 million – money that it does not readily have as its national budget does not specifically set money aside for drought relief, said Billyboy Siabatho, deputy director of the rural development council at the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.
“Often, when drought comes, we end up borrowing from funds that would have been set aside for infrastructure development projects,” he said.
Ipelegeng’s main objective is to provide short term employment and relief, while helping carry out development efforts the country sees as important, he said.
“During drought periods, there are fewer farming activities. Therefore most people relocate from farms to villages, looking for alternative sources of income,” Siabatho said.
“Due to limited job opportunities in rural areas, most people rely on Ipelegeng as an alternative source of employment,” he noted.
But as droughts continue to worsen in southern Africa, Siabatho wonders whether the government will be able to keep pace with growing demand.
He also worries whether people will begin to see dependence on safety nets as an easier route than farming, as crop failures worsen.
Botswana’s government, aware of the risks from worsening drought, began in December working on a new drought management strategy that aims to improve planning and budgeting for threats and not focus simply on responding to them, Siabatho said.
‘BEANS ARE BURNING’
For Kesebang, such help can’t come soon enough. Her farm, a few kilometers out of the town of Molepolole, sits in Kweneng District, which has the highest poverty levels in the country, of over 50 percent, according to 2018 report by Statistics Botswana.
Most of the 567 pula ($55) she earns each month she works for Ipelegeng goes to keep her youngest son in primary school.
“I buy books and uniform. Often nothing is really left. Life has become difficult,” she said.
The new planting season isn’t looking much more promising either, she said. Most of the maize, beans, sweet reed and watermelon she planted in late December are struggling, she said.
“The beans are already burning. I have no hope of harvesting maize. Maybe the watermelons will survive,” she said, hopefully.
She’s already given up plowing three-quarters of her farm, to avoid greater losses, she said, though she has allowed a friend to try her luck farming a four-hectare section.
For now, Kesebeng heads to town each day to join hundreds of other temporary workers trimming tree branches that obstruct traffic.
Harsher weather isn’t hitting only the poorest farmers, either. Oduetse Koboto, who heads the environment and climate change unit at the United Nations Development Programme, said he saw little harvest from his own farm last year, in part because of floods.
“I planted tomatoes on 1.5 hectares. I expected to make 200,000 pula ($19,000). I lost. I had also planted a hectare of green peppers, expecting 600,000 pula ($58,000) from it. I lost all that too,” he said.
His 600 mango trees produced not a single useable fruit, he added, and “this is regardless of the fact that I use drip irrigation, solar pumping, and spent on farm maintenance all year round”.
“Imagine what the poor in villages must be going through,” he said.
Botswana for over a decade has invested in helping farmers boost grain production and improve food security, including through measures such as better access to credit, technology, seeds and water.
But with droughts worsening, improving harvests remains a challenge – and the country continues to import over 80 percent of its food from South Africa.
“Low production in the agricultural sector due to drought has led to high import bills in cereals, dairy, poultry products and feeds, to name but a few,” Siabatho said.
Costs for programs like Ipelegeng also are rising, he said, noting that the program now costs over $28 million a year to run.
For Kesebang, stress levels are also rising. After watching her new crops wilt, she was nearly hospitalized as a result of anxiety and high blood pressure, she said, and had to remain in Molepolole for two weeks.
Recent rains have now given her a bit more optimism.
“A week into February it rained at least twice. The few plants that survived are recovering. I have hope,” she said. -Reuters