The Kalahari Basin is a desert/sand dune area in southern Africa that includes the Kalahari Desert. It is 2.5 million square miles in size, and covers parts of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe (CBBC 2005). Temperatures in the basin reach 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) and there is zero rainfall for six to eight months at a time (Silberbauer and Logan 2016). This makes for harsh living conditions for indigenous as well as non-indigenous populations that rely heavily on agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering. Among the most vulnerable of these populations are the San, also known pejoratively as the Bushmen (Kalahari Meerkat Project 2017). They are among the oldest tribes in the world and the oldest living population in Southern Africa. Africa as a continent is rated by the IPCC as one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change and specifically lists agricultural production and ecosystem change as major issues, two problems that are of particular importance to people living in the Basin (Vogel et al. 2014). The Basin faces a range of impacts including sand dune expansion (CBBC 2005), loss of hunting due to drought, loss of native knowledge, and loss of arable agricultural land (Styles 2012). The Basin exemplifies the many problems that the larger continent faces with climate change.
One of the Oldest Tribes on Earth
To the right, two San women sit under a tree in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The San say they are the first peoples to inhabit the Kalahari, and have lived in the area for 25,000 years. The Kalahari face a myriad of issues including:
- Land rights issues
- Loss of traditional knowledge
- Vulnerability to climate change
- Reliance on government water sources
Climate Change Hazards
Africa is among the most vulnerable continents to climate change. That vulnerability consists of high or very high confidence in the compromising of agricultural systems and the aggravation of water issues that many African countries now confront. Ecosystem degradation and change is a greater problem in southern Africa where the Kalahari Basin is located (Vogel et al. 2014). Additionally, decadal warming changes are higher in southern Africa (0.3 degrees) than in other regions, more rainfall anomalies and more intense droughts have been reported since 1970 in the same region (Vogel et al. 2014). A positive feedback loop is also occurring in Africa, whereby drought kills vegetation, however vegetation can contribute a possible 0.8 degrees of cooling; the more vegetation goes away, the hotter it gets, and then more vegetation dies off (Vogel et al. 2014). One third of all Africans (approximately 400 million people) are living in drought-prone areas, with many of those people located in or around the Kalahari Basin. Along with those 400 million, another one quarter of Africans live in high stress water areas, meaning their access to improved water is variable and limited (Vogel et al. 2014). Impacts from those stresses will be amplified by increased drought and higher temperatures and the area is considered by the IPCC to be especially sensitive to climate (Vogel et al. 2014).
Table 9.1 in the IPCC report deals with significant ecosystem responses to climate change and specifically addresses the southern part of the Kalahari Basin. It details a scenario where all dune fields in the Basin are vulnerable to change or suffering from enhanced activity by 2099 (Vogel et al. 2014). This would lead to a decrease in fertile land for agriculture and a loss of traditional hunting patterns for hunter-gatherers.
Climate Change on the Continent
World Health Organization
This video by the World Health Organization shows the vulnerabilities of Africa to climate change, including:
- Crop lands shrinking up to 90%
- A loss in GDP
- Increase in deadly diseases like Malaria and Cholera
- Up to 40% less rainfall
The Kalahari is mostly desert, and is expanding rapidly. The BBC reports that it could double in size to five million square miles with climate change and if wind speed increases to 15 miles per hour, it will disrupt grains enough to shift entire dunes (CBBC 2005). The wind speeds would be a result of warmer air coming in over the desert, covering agricultural land and soil. A lack of cultivatable land will lead to a decrease in traditional farming practices for the 40% of Botswana’s residents (the Kalahari covers most of Botswana) that rely primarily on pastoral agriculture (Coumou et al. 2016). All models show increase dune activity by 2070, meaning it is an unavoidable impact of climate change (Thomas 2005) that could result in more hunting and reliance on a non-sedentary lifestyle, that is also under threat from climate change (Ndhlovu 2015). In addition to a possible loss of agricultural land and a direct impact on the economy, the Kalahari Desert is also a little known carbon sink. When higher temperatures and warmer air come in contact with the sand, there is a serious loss of carbon that is noticeable and comparable to other soils (Microbiology Society 2008). Although the release of stored carbon is traditionally associated with rich organic soil, this shows that shifting dunes and higher temperatures will also contribute to the global carbon cycle.
Aside from the impact on the sand, climate change will also have unpredictable effects on birds and other species living in the Kalahari Basin, as extreme heat waves, drought, and rising temperatures exceed the tolerance of organisms living in the Basin and concomitant range shifts (ACDI 2017).
Vulnerability: The San
Beyond the biological and physical impacts are the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations, such as the San. The San are the oldest tribe in the area years and have retained extensive native knowledge and nomadic practices during that time. However, they now number only 50,000 tribesmen and are already losing battles for their native lands without the multiplying effects of climate change. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve has forced the San off of their native hunting land and into settlements where they are trained to become herdsmen by government officials (Meldrum 2011). Now, those 50,000 tribesmen and women are at risk of becoming climate refugees and in the hands of Botswana’s government, where they have not fared well in the past. They are considered the highest risk group in the area because of their dependence on the natural environment, a dependence that is becoming more restricted as climate change takes hold (Namibia 2015).
Loss of Traditional Knowledge
The increased drought, unpredictability of water, and loss of vegetation all make it harder for the San to access their traditional resources (Ndhlovu 2015). The unpredictable conditions also present challenges for indigenous knowledge, as they were able to use that knowledge to track animals, keep track of hunting seasons and manage the lands they hunted on. After hundreds of years of colonization, climate change is the latest challenge to the San's native knowledge (Shifting Sands 2009). Additionally, climate change affects their freedom to move independently as a tribe. Normally the San people would have mapped out and passed along information as to where water sources are so that hunting groups could find them. Now, the drought and unpredictability of extreme weather has forced the San people to be more reliant on stationary water sources in the form of water bores owned by the Botswanian government (Huffington Post 2008).
The Kalahari Basin represents all of the major problems that the IPCC says the continent of Africa faces with climate change. It is an area with the highest vulnerability to drought, loss of agricultural land, increased drought, and loss of indigenous populations. The Basin, containing 1.2 million people, is a microcosm for how the rest of the continent will feel the impacts of climate change. The impacts will be felt the most by the San people, who have a connection to the natural world that is and will continue to be disrupted by climate change, a connection that more modern communities do not have.
Africa's Low Contribution to the Climate Change Problem
The World Bank aggregates carbon dioxide emissions and produces maps, right.
- Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2013
- The lighter blue colors represent the lower emitting countries
- Almost all the countries of Africa are emitting less than 2.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person
- Average is 0.8 tonnes per person per year
The impacts of climate change are unequal, as the San people have done little to contribute to climate change. The same can be said for the entire continent of Africa. Africa contributed only two to five percent of global greenhouse gas emissions The global average of 3.9 tons of carbon per capita dwarfs Africa’s 0.8 metric tons per person. Similar to the San people, but on a different scale, Africa must rely on an entity they should not have to rely on – the United Nations and other developed countries. If those countries do not reduce emissions, countries in Africa will become even more dependent on the United Nations for aid. This is not unlike the San’s situation, whereby if something is not done about climate change, they will increasingly have to rely on the government for water and supplies.
African Climate & Development Initiative. (2017). 'Hot birds' programme: Predicting the impacts of climate change on desert birds. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
CBBC. (2005). Kalahari basin expected to double in size. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Climate change and indigenous peoples (2008). . New York: United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Isuses.
Climate change 'will set kalahari dunes in motion. (2005). Retrieved March 16, 2017.
Coumou, D., Robinson, A., Hare, B., & Schaeffer, M. (2016). Climate change impacts in sub-saharan africa: From phsycial changes to their social repercussions. Regional Environmental Change, 15(8)
The effect of climate change on native people.(2017, February 18th, 2017). The Huffington Post,
Fihlani, P. (2014, 7 January 2014). Botswana bushmen: Modern life is destroying us. BBC News,
Kalahari Meerkat Project. Kalahari bushmen. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Meldrum, A. (2011, San fight to keep their kalahari hunting grounds. The Guardian Weekly,
Microbiology Society. (2008). Kalahari desert soils and climate change. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Namibia: New project to help san adapt to climate change. (2015). Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Ndhlovu, L. (2015). The san: Climate change and lifestyle. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Shifting sands: Climate change in the kalahari. (2009). Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Silberbauer, G., & Logan, R. (2016). Kalahari desert. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
Styles, R. (2012). San vs wild: What the san people can teach us about living with climate change. Retrieved March 6 2017, 2017.
United nations fact sheet on climate change(2006). . Nairobi, Kenya: UNFCCC.
Vogel, C., Nyong, A., Niang, I., & Boko, M. (2014). Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, No. AR4). United Kingdom: IPCC.
Image 1: Lake Scientist
Image 2: Beautiful World
Image 3: Associated Press
Image 4: Wikimedia Commons
Image 5: ACDI
Image 6: BBC
About the Author
Welcome! This page was put together as part of a course entitled Adapting to Climate Change at St. Lawrence University with Dr. Jon Rosales. I was an Environmental Studies-Sociology major, and this project was undertaken my senior spring. For any questions or further inquiries about the research presented here, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org