Waiting on water - Drought management and its protracted timelines: An explainer

Waiting on water - Drought management and its protracted timelines: An explainer

Michelle Toxopeüs | Dec 02, 2019
This brief explores the procedures prescribed for declaring drought conditions a disaster, and attempts to understand the oftentimes protracted timelines associated with drought relief efforts.


Drought is an enduring feature of the South African climate. Often though, we are ill prepared for the eventuality. While the Eastern Cape drought has recently been declared a disaster area, commentators have questioned the delay in the declaration;[1] and why other provinces – including the Northern Cape, Limpopo and the Western Cape – have not yet been declared disaster areas,[2] especially as weather forecasts show little sign of relief. The South African Weather Service (“SAWS”) has predicted below normal early summer rainfall patterns over the far eastern parts of KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, with higher than normal rainfall more likely over the western and central parts of the country.[3] Mid to late summer predictions indicate a likelihood of below normal rainfall conditions spreading across the country, accompanied by widespread warmer temperatures.

This brief explores the procedures prescribed for declaring drought conditions a disaster, and attempts to understand the oftentimes protracted timelines associated with drought relief efforts.

Defining, measuring and forecasting drought

Defining drought is fairly simple. The SAWS defines it in meteorological terms. This means that a drought occurs when an area experiences below average rainfall for an extended period of time (where “normal” rainfall is calculated over a 30 year period).[4] The SAWS regards less than 75% of normal rainfall as a severe meteorological drought. Other types of drought include hydrological droughts – where water reserves fall below an established average – and agricultural droughts, which occur when there is insufficient moisture to support the average crop production. Both can occur during times of average rainfall when influenced by external factors like overuse, poor water resource management practices, dry soil conditions or ineffective agricultural techniques.

Measuring drought is more complex. The SAWS primarily makes use of the Standardised Precipitation Index (“SPI”), which is based on “the probability of rainfall for any time scale”, to assist with assessing the severity of drought.[5] According to the SAWS, the SPI is best placed to assist decision-makers in assessing the cumulative effect of reduced levels of rainfall over a specific time.

The SAWS is tasked with the responsibility of monitoring weather and climate patterns. It provides forecasts or weather advisories which take into account information from domestic and international centres to provide the most accurate predictions possible. The SAWS compiles this information and provides daily, long-range and seasonal predictions. These are central to South Africa’s early warning system and should inform the development and implementation of effective risk reduction and water resilience strategies.

How do we respond to drought?

The Disaster Management Act[6] is the leading legislative instrument guiding South Africa’s response to drought. Its purpose is to integrate and coordinate local, provincial and national action in response to disasters like drought. Instead of placing responsibility on a single department, the Act aims to decentralise government’s response and intervention to the agencies most able to deal with the drought. Disaster management centres (“DMC”) are established at each level of government to implement this integrated response system.[7]

The framework of the Act essentially sets out four steps in responding to a drought situation: characterisation, assessment, classification and declaration. These are reactive in nature but should be supported by the proactive structures established by the Act, including its institutional framework, early warning systems and planning.

First, the Act’s provisions are implemented only where the situation is regarded (or characterised) as a “disaster” in terms of the Act. This means that the drought causes or threatens to cause (i) death, injury or disease; (ii) damage to property, infrastructure or the environment; or (iii) significant disruption of the life of a community.[8] In addition, the drought must be of such a magnitude that those affected by it are unable to cope with its effects using their own resources.

Once it falls within this definition, the respective local or provincial DMC steps into action by initiating assessment and early implementation procedures.[9] The local or provincial DMC must immediately assess the magnitude and severity of the drought (or potential thereof) and inform the national DMC of its assessment, which may include making a recommendation as to whether the drought should be classified as a local, provincial or national disaster. The assessment has technical aspects but DMCs should be capable of leveraging the expertise of institutions like the SAWS, the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to deliver accurate assessments. Once the local or provincial DMC has a clear picture of the magnitude of the drought through its assessment procedures, it must alert and garner assistance from relevant disaster management role players in the area, and initiate and implement any contingency plans or emergency procedures in response to the drought.

While the relevant DMC initiates any contingency plans, the national DMC must classify the drought as a local, provincial or national disaster to ensure the proper application of the Act’s purposes and provisions. It involves two steps. The national DMC must itself be satisfied that the drought is a disaster and assess its magnitude and severity. In classifying a drought, the national DMC designates the responsibility to manage and coordinate the effects of the drought to the executive in a specific sphere of government.[10] Until a drought is classified, it is regarded as a local disaster which needs to be managed within municipal structures.

The effect of officially declaring a drought a disaster bears different consequences to classifying it. Declaring a local, provincial or national disaster in terms of the Act facilitates the swift release of conditional government funding reprioritised and designated under the Annual Division of Revenue Act (“DoRA”), amongst other things. A declaration may only be initiated:

  1. after consultation with the relevant MEC (in the case of provincial declarations); and
  2. if it is clear that existing legislation and contingency arrangements do not adequately provide for the relevant level of government to deal with the disaster effectively, or other special circumstances warrant the declaration.[11]

The legislature clearly intended the declaration of a drought as disaster to be a measure of last resort given the extensive powers it confers on the Minister, Premier or Municipal Council. Once a declaration is gazetted, it allows the executive at the relevant sphere to make regulations (or bylaws) or issue directions authorising extraordinary measures outside normal timelines and procurement procedures. Importantly, the declaration and the regulations attached to it lapse after three months unless the declaration is extended month by month.

Practical implications

The measures prescribed by the Disaster Management Act (described above) are only activated when drought conditions have reached a level of severity that those affected by it cannot cope using their own resources.[12] Where local authorities are unable to manage the drought effectively, provincial or national government may be called on to take responsibility of coordinating and managing the effects of drought when it is classified. But only once a drought is declared a disaster in terms of the Act are conditional allocations provided under DoRA released to fund immediate drought responses.[13] In doing so, National Treasury also has the option of reallocating[14] or transferring[15] further conditional funding to alleviate the impacts of the drought.

What happens, then, before a drought is classified or declared?

It is important to note that drought management does not start and end with the Disaster Management Act. While the Act provides for arrangements to respond proactively and reactively to threats, water scarcity and drought management requires active and unremitting involvement from government and other stakeholders – both in preparation and in response to drought. Municipalities, for example, must manage water scarcity at a local level by implementing water conservation and demand management strategies – including water restrictions, education programmes and tariff increases, where applicable. Reducing the scourge of water leaks is integral to overcoming water shortages. Equally important is the obligation on the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation to manage the water usage of large-scale users like mining, industry and agriculture; and on the Department of Agriculture to manage the effects of drought on farmers.

While these measures were introduced during Cape Town’s 2017/18 drought,[16] ensuring proper planning to curb the effects of reduced levels of rainfall are equally important in managing periods of severe water shortages.[17] There is a heightened need, therefore, to develop and implement proactive drought strategies. This has been a persistent call from critics in drought policy literature.[18] Relevant government authorities must ensure bulk water and service infrastructure is properly maintained and functional; continue building resilience in all sectors, but especially in municipal and agricultural water use sectors; and, importantly, ensure proper water infrastructure and resource planning.[19]

Often though, local and provincial governments are inadequately prepared for drought eventualities, which delays action. Even once a drought is declared a disaster, action has often been slower than one would hope. Delayed action has in some instances been attributed to supply chain issues. Delivery of in-kind support to residents (in the form of drilling boreholes) and farmers (often by providing fodder) have been reported to be slow.[20] Slow administrative responses are also said to stall swifter action.[21]

Concluding remarks

South Africa’s approach to drought relief makes declaration as a measure of last resort. It requires that local and provincial contingency plans be exhausted before conditional funding is released by Treasury. This approach is appropriate given the extensive powers conferred to the executive in times of a declared disaster. The attachment of a time limit to the declaration and its consequences usefully constrains the use of emergency executive power. But administration tends to stall much-needed drought relief, and there may be a need to develop special emergency procedures relating to severe drought conditions. Even more important is a focus on proactively addressing the potential for drought at municipal and provincial levels – particularly given the frequency with which drought occurs in South Africa, which climate change is likely to make worse.

Michelle Toxopeüs
Legal Researcher


[1] Ellis E, “Eastern Cape government finally declares province a disaster area” DM, 16 October 2019; and Kassen K, “EC should’ve been declared drought disaster area months ago – DA” EWN, 30 October 2019.

[3] SAWS, “Seasonal Climate Watch: November 2019 to March 2020”, issued on 4 November 2019.

[4] SAWS, “What is drought”, last accessed on 14 November 2019.

[5] SAWS, “What drought indices are currently in use at SAWS?”, last accessed 14 November 2019.

[6] 57 of 2002 (“the Act”).

[7] Sections 8, 29 and 43 of the Act establish national, provincial and local disaster management centres. In terms of the Act, each province, and metropolitan and district municipality must establish a disaster management centre.

[8] Section 1 of the Act.

[9] Sections 35 and 49 of the Act regulate assessment procedures at provincial and local level.

[10] Section 23 of the Act regulates classification procedures.

[11] Sections 27, 41 and 55 regulate declarations of a drought as a national, provincial and local disaster.

[12] The drought must first be regarded as a “disaster” in terms of the Act before its provisions apply.

[13] Sections 7 & 8 of the DoRA, 2019, read with Parts A and B of Schedule 7.

[14] Section 20(6)(a) of DoRA, 2019.

[15] Section 21(7) of DoRA, 2019.

[16] Ziervogel G (2019) “Unpacking the Cape Town Drought: Lessons Learned” Report by African Centre for Cities.

[17] Muller M, “Cape Town’s drought: Don’t blame climate change”, Nature, 6 July 2018. This has been re-emphasised more recently in considering South Africa’s current drought conditions, see Muller M, “The real water crisis: Not understanding what’s needed”, M&G,10 November 2019.

[18] Even at the start of the democratic era, policy experts have emphasised the need to develop proactive strategies in response to drought. See, for example, Bruwer JJ (1993) “Drought policy in the Republic of South Africa”, Drought Assessment, Management, and Planning: Theory and Case Studies, 199-212. More recently, see Vogel C & van Zyl K (2016) “Drought: In search of sustainable solutions to a persistent ‘wicked’ problem in South Africa”, Climate Change Adaptation Strategies: Upstream-Downstream Perspectives, 195-211; and Baudoin MA et al. (2017) “Living with drought in South Africa: lessons learnt from the recent El Nino drought period”, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 23(1), 128-37.

[19] The Disaster Management Act requires DMCs at all levels of government to develop disaster management plans and strategies to prevent and mitigate the effects of drought. In addition, managing water scarcity and building resilience must be factored into municipal water services development planning, at the very least. Likewise, several instruments are available to the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation to ensure effective planning.

[20] See, for example, reports in M&G “Drought crisis: Three provinces declared national disasters

[21] See Baudoin MA above note 18.