In February 2020, the authorities of Ondjiva, a small city in the southern province of Cunene, Angola, issued a public warning announcing that the local Calueque Dam had reached its maximum capacity, implying a serious risk of flooding for the communities living alongside the Cunene River downstream. In the same month, rains in the neighboring province of Huíla caused an overflow of the Caculuvar River and left 21,000 inhabitants of the Humbe commune in isolation, due to the damage caused to the road and bridge that connects it to Ondjiva.
Despite this watery introduction, make no mistake: the Cunene province, along with neighboring Huíla and Namibe, has and continues to experience a long-lasting drought cycle that has affected thousands of people since at least 2012. July 2019 estimates by UNICEF point to 2.3 million people affected (including almost 500,000 children under the age of five) and 35% of livestock dead. The most affected communities have been the local pastoralists of the remote areas of these provinces who rely on recurrent access to water for their herding activities. Beyond the human and animal death toll, reports from the field underscore other consequences of the drought cycle: hunger and food insecurity, forced migration, increased disease outbreaks, school abandonment, inter-ethnic conflict, and so on. Subsequently, several NGOs and the Catholic Church urged the Angolan government to recognize the humanitarian disaster and declare a state of emergency in order to provide immediate and sustained relief.
In response, after the approval in parliament of an emergency plan against drought in May 2019 with a package of USD $200 million, the Angolan government is slowly implementing a hydro-infrastructural intervention in the southern provinces, with both small-scale operations—such as rehabilitating or producing new water holes and reservoirs—and large-scale projects in the form of a water transfer system from the Cunene River into the Cuamato region. (Prior to this moment, the main water and energy infrastructures in the region were the remnants of investments made in the late 1960s by the colonial Portuguese authorities.)
Southern Angola is traditionally an arid and desert landscape, where water scarcity has shaped the livelihoods of local communities for centuries without actually hampering their subsistence. This was brilliantly captured, for instance, by the anthropologist Ruy Duarte de Carvalho in his book Vou Lá Visitar Pastores (1999), where he described how Kuvale herders in the Namibe province performed their cycles of transhumance searching for water between three local rivers (the Bero, Curoka, and Cunene). Furthermore, as noted in the opening paragraph, the rainy season continues to feed the rivers and groundwaters. So, what is causing the particularly acute crisis now? The government and the local media have used the umbrella term “El Niño” as sole scapegoat to justify the situation and frame the governmental response as a reaction against an “external factor.” Although we can indeed identify a more overarching climatological phenomenon that has affected southern Africa in recent years, there are several other explanations for this environmental and humanitarian crisis.
In November 2019, Amnesty International published a harrowing report concerning the situation in the Gambos region (Huíla province), where the installation of state-sponsored large-scale commercial cattle farming has taken up two-thirds (67%) of local communal grazing land in the region since the end of civil war in 2002, without any due process and overruling the country’s own environmental laws. This has led to a drastic reduction of open water sources for local herders, pushing them toward increased food insecurity in times of drought. More specifically, they are forced to sell their cattle for meager prices, resorting to eating wild leaves (lombi), burning wood to sell as coal dozens of kilometers away from their homes. Local media have also reported on cases of violence between herding communities due to disputes over scarce water resources. From this perspective, drought stems as much from a climate cycle as from the increasing effects of neoliberalism on the rural areas of southern Angola.
This kind of dispossession is not exclusive to Gambos: in Cunene, a conflict broke out in 2015, after the agro-industrial project “Horizonte 2020” was allowed to occupy a perimeter of 85ha in the Curoca and Ombadja municipalities, which usurped the communities’ ancestral lands and respective resources. Subsequently, the local communities mobilized and confronted the workers, standing in the way of the tractors, but to no avail.
Conflict over population displacement has a history that has involved water too. As several historians note, since the late 1800s, when the Portuguese state was rehearsing an effective and large scale exploitation of the region through settlement and agricultural development campaigns, access to water became a source of conflict. A famous case was the “Mucubal Wars” in 1940-1, which resulted in the massacre, imprisonment, and deportation of members of that ethnic group in the Gambos region. Scholars Elisete Marques da Silva (2003) and Cláudia Castelo (2018) have detailed how the use of barbed wire became a common technique for territorial usurpation and defense.
In 2020, while the “combat against drought” (as the government’s emergency plan is often referred) continues, there are recurrent reports of lack of maintenance of the water infrastructure, and of the diversion of financial and material assistance for the local population into the hands of private officials. At the same time, the highly celebrated and publicized food distribution campaigns promoted by the authorities to support the local communities only offer a few months of subsistence.
The dramatic consequences of the recent drought cycle do much more than add to the elimination of pastoralist lifestyles, and the social and economic marginalization of pastoralists across Africa due to environmental factors. They expose an architecture of both governmental and private predation of environmental resources at the cost of human dignity and human rights (see also the case of the Samburu in northern Kenya).
In this framework, the “combat against drought” is based on an underlying paradox: it is directed by the local and national authorities to provide solutions to problems enabled by the same agents, either through omission and lack of provision, or through the sponsorship of private enterprise without due process.