Conservation

The Southern African Drought and Its Flood of Dilemmas

The recent Southern African drought is considered one of the worst the region has ever experienced. Besides accelerated climate change there are other factors that contribute to worsening the effects of this particular drought. Some of these include water infrastructure that does not keep up with the region’s rapidly growing population and developments that confine wildlife to limited ranges. Every week news reports are flooded with the devastating effects of this drought; millions of people going hungry, countless animals dying, and people needing water donations. Besides the news reports this drought has also brought with it a flood of dilemmas; countless questions with very few answers as to how to deal with these harsh conditions.

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Dried up river.

Since the beginning of life harsh conditions have been nature’s way of weeding out weak organisms and letting the more suitably adapted prosper. Those surviving organisms would then reproduce and pass on the favourable traits to their offspring. Once favourable conditions return the species would once again flourish and individuals will have a greater chance of surviving future obstacles in nature’s gauntlet. Throughout life nature will continue using harsh conditions in varying forms and scales, from predators to natural catastrophes, to select for more suitably adapted organisms. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, more famously known as the dinosaur extinction event, was in simple terms a prolonged period of conditions that were less than favourable for dinosaurs and the other wildlife groups that perished. Not all organisms found conditions during this mass extinction to be life-limiting as they survived and through time changed into the diversity seen today.

Southern Africa’s most severe drought on record is in simple terms a prolonged period of less than usual rainfall and higher than normal temperatures, a prolonged period of conditions that are less than suitable for both people and wildlife. A situation like this comes with a host of ethical dilemmas. Do we provide wildlife with water or do we let nature take its course? Ideally there should be no dilemma as nature needs to take its course to ensure that future generations of wildlife have a greater chance of overcoming harsh conditions. But can we justly say that we are letting nature sort itself out when our developments impede wildlife from getting to water sources they historically had access to? We cannot rightfully say that we are letting nature take its course if we are hampering wildlife’s ability to move away from harsh conditions. Since we have confined wildlife to these small spaces and restricted their access to water, albeit from far away sources, then maybe we should bring the water to them.

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One of the many victims of the drought.

Providing water is definitely the humane thing to do, but this also helps animals that are less resilient survive, reproduce, and rear young that are less likely to survive future harsh conditions. Since doing the humane thing may be sealing their fate then maybe it is best to let nature’s processes be. This leads us to another dilemma; the term ‘natural processes’ is not as clear-cut as it used to be since our pollution has led to accelerated climate change and possibly worsened the effects of a drought that would have occurred naturally. Since we may have worsened conditions that would have otherwise been bearable for wildlife maybe we should do the morally correct thing and provide assistance. Again, what is morally appropriate may not be naturally ideal. Not every individual in a wildlife community was meant to survive as species need to change with the times or risk going extinct. Then again we risk losing the whole community if we let natural processes that are turbo-charged by anthropogenic factors run their course. It seems we are caught in a vicious cycle of dilemmas and in desperate need of an intervention.

We should definitely intervene, but in a cautious way. Our interventions should be minimal and as close as possible to what nature would have done. Now the question arises; how do we share precious little water between people and wildlife? This question essentially pits people’s lives against the lives of wild organisms, something that is never well received. Even suggesting an equal share of water between people and wildlife would be frowned upon as some people will be without water. Any person going thirsty while wildlife gets watered will then be seen as valuing the lives of wild organisms more than people’s lives. This is another ethical debate in itself but instead of haggling over which lives matter the most we should rather take a leaf out of wildlife’s book. Wildlife adapts in order to survive harsh conditions. We should also adapt by being less negligent with our water usage. We should adapt especially since nature has shown us on more than one occasion that we cannot control it.

– Fortunate M. Phaka

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