By Mangaliso Mohammed

The mere occurrence of a natural hazard such as drought does not automatically warrant an emergency or disaster. Most natural hazards, be it floods, hailstorms or wildfires, have both a natural and socioeconomic component to them. What is clear to scientists and policy makers is that there is little or even nothing that can be done to avoid the occurrence of many, if not all, natural hazards.

In fact, droughts like all natural hazards, are an inherent part of life. Droughts are a natural phenomenon that constitute part of a bigger system of cyclical natural processes that balance out different climatic conditions on the planet. Not so obvious is the fact that even though little can be done to prevent droughts, there are plenty of opportunities to minimise their negative impact on livelihoods.

Disaster management is about managing the risk of natural hazards in order to prevent them from becoming disasters. This is done to protect livelihoods and to secure social and economic development. Certainly, Swaziland’s very own National Disaster Risk Management Policy (2010) adopts a risk management system that seeks to minimise the country’s vulnerability to hazards and to effectively prevent and mitigate the impact of disasters within the context of sustainable development.

It follows, therefore, that the management of droughts in the country should also embrace a risk management approach. Specifically, the implementation of the disaster management policy should focus on reducing Swaziland’s inherent vulnerabilities to drought. This way, efforts and resources in the country can be deployed systematically to target and transform the socioeconomic conditions that threaten livelihoods the most, due to droughts.

The crux of the matter is this: it is the socioeconomic conditions of the country at the onset of the drought that determine the severity of the impact of a drought on livelihoods. Even though each drought is unique and presents a set of its own challenges, it is its social dimension that determines whether the drought becomes a disaster or not.
So what can be done to prevent natural hazards from becoming disasters?

The good news is that the socioeconomic conditions of the country are not fixed; they can be altered given time and the ‘right’ kind of policies. Vulnerability to droughts can increase or decrease, depending on the state of the socioeconomic characteristics of the country.
Fortunately, the solutions to this issue are already available here in Swaziland. The pursuit of Vision 2022 presents opportunities to alter the endemic disaster vulnerabilities in Swaziland. The Strategy for Sustainable Development and Inclusive Growth (SSDIG) articulates the country’s vision for 2022 and beyond, and maps out the development path for Swaziland. It calls for reducing the underlying risk factors and strengthening disaster preparedness.

Just as well, the establishment of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) in 2008 sets out a new ambitious and commendable era of disaster management in the country. The Agency’s philosophy towards disaster now focuses on prevention and minimising exposure to disaster before it happens. This is a turnaround approach from dealing with disasters on an ad hoc and reactive basis, which in the past focused on disaster relief and response during the actual disaster event.

A major component of achieving Vision 2022 has to do with changing the country’s social and economic factors; that is, the level of poverty in terms of people’s access to income and resources, population dynamics, water investments and management practices, as well as innovation and technology adoption, among many other socioeconomic factors.

With full commitment to the implementation of the National Development Strategy and Disaster Risk Reduction Policies, the country’s vulnerability to drought can turn for better, and perhaps, even see Swaziland becoming drought proof.
So what can we learn from the 2015/16 El Niño induced drought in Swaziland?

Besides the fact that the 2015/16 El Niño induced drought had a massive negative impact on the economy and livelihoods, decapitating agriculture production and wiping out traditional forms of savings in rural households, one thing is clear: droughts will become a norm moving forward into the near future.

In a study conducted by the NDMA on the Socioeconomic Impacts of the 2015/16 Drought in Swaziland, Swazi households confirm that the country has been experiencing drought-like conditions since the 1980s with impacts intensifying in the last decade. Moreover, research and climate simulations are strongly suggesting that the frequency and magnitude of extreme climatic events are on the rise. For instance, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that for countries like Swaziland, yields from rain-fed agriculture could fall by up to 50% by 2020, threatening the livelihoods of the people whose lives depend on subsistence agriculture.
For the country, it is irrefutable that droughts will have huge implications on sustaining the economy and livelihoods. Swaziland is an agro-based economy with rural development forming an integral part of the National Development Strategy (NDS).

Smallholder farmers in Swaziland constitute 70% of the population and occupy 75% of the crop land. Yet, according to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, smallholder farmers contribute a measly 11% of total agricultural output in the country, with average cereal yields as low as 1.1 tonne per cultivated hectare. By and large, the country’s food and fibre production system is still struggling to produce enough food to meet the national food requirements. Add a drought to the system, it almost comes to a grinding halt.

To illustrate, the Vulnerability Assessment Committee Report (May, 2016) indicates that the number of food insecure people in the country increased from about a quarter of the population (320 973 people) to about half of the population (638 251 people) just in one year. On the other hand, the country’s food balance sheets are showing that in the past 5 years before the 2015/16 drought, the country has averaged an annual cereal production of 92 000 tonnes against the 245 000 total tonnes of cereal required for consumption. This means the food production system falls short of the country’s food security needs by a whopping 62%. Now, with the recent drought, the country was only able to produce 20% of its cereal requirement, facing no other option but to import almost all of its basic food needs (80%) from South Africa.
What is the cost of such endemic vulnerabilities to our economy and people?

The answer is simple; they cripple Swaziland’s ability to produce its own food. Instead, all of the country’s agriculture jobs are exported to neighbouring countries. The reality is that each time we eat in Swaziland; we can be sure that 62% of the time we have helped a farmer in another country get paid. In the event of a drought, we can rest assured that all our food budgets go to support farmer families outside the country to the detriment of our own smallholder farmers right here in Swaziland.

To cap it all, studies are now also showing that even the provision of drought relief or assistance to the most vulnerable actually increases and perpetuates future vulnerability. People develop dependencies on government and donor organisations, and in the process, lose their self-reliance and resilience in future drought episodes.

The big question is; how do we as a nation eliminate the systemic vulnerabilities to drought and provide the much needed emergency relief in a way that provides a safety net for the most vulnerable without compromising their ability to regain self-reliance and dignity to take charge of their own livelihoods?

The answer to this loaded question requires serious national attention. Fortunately, the 2015/16 drought provides an opportunity to unpack this question so that we can learn and grow, and minimise future loss and suffering.

About the author: Mangaliso Mohammed is a Research Economist at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre. He can be reached at  He writes in his personal capacity.