All dried up: the materiality of drought in Ladismith, South Africa

Authors: Elisa Savelli*, Uppsala University, Maria Rusca, Uppsala University, Hannah Cloke, University of Reading, Giuliano Di Baldassarre, Uppsala University
Topics: Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Cultural and Political Ecology, Earth Science
Keywords: non-human engagements, materiality of drought, socio-ecological crisis
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 19
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Droughts are becoming more alarming due to their increasing severity and their disastrous socio-ecological implications. Yet today scientists still struggle to define and/or understand droughts due to the social and material complexity which characterizes these phenomena. This work perceives this urgency and sets out to confront the distinctive complexity that characterizes these events relative to other hazards. Our approach combines political ecology perspectives with hydro-climatological insights so as to account for the material and social entanglements of droughts. The drought-stricken Ladismith, South Africa, is the point of departure of our empirical analysis which portrays the disruption reached by this rural community after five years of below-average rainfall. We show how Ladismith socio-ecological crisis was mostly engendered by a mechanism of capital accumulation through land and water dispossession, which emerged throughout the expansion of white commercial agriculture. We examine these socio-political processes in relation to the drought material transformations by tracing more than-human-engagements with climate, land, and hydrological flows. By so doing we advance a new political ecology of drought that distinguishes the crucial interactions between social power, climate, land use, and hydrology, which often transform a meteorological event into a soil moisture drought, a hydrological drought, and eventually into a major socio-ecological crisis. Secondly, considering the materiality of droughts, enables political ecology to understand that social power not only shapes vulnerabilities, but also the manifestation of the hazard itself. This novel conceptualization of hazard as socially produced is key to intercept and confront unjust and unsustainable socio-ecological changes.

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