Vulnerability to climate change in Southern Africa: Can smallholder farmers survive the threat of food insecurity?

Sunday Y. Hosu presents a study characterizing the present and future vulnerability of smallholder farming households in contrasting agro-ecological zones in Eastern Cape Province.


Paucity of water is regarded as the greatest limitation to agricultural production in South Africa, with more than 50% of the country’s water resources being used for agricultural purposes. The problems are compounded by uneven distribution of rainfall across the different agro-ecological zones. South Africa has average annual precipitation of 450 mm, with less than 10% of the country receiving 750 mm precipitation per annum - a figure that is below the world’s minimum annual rainfall of 860 mm [1]. Climate change effects have been predicted to be greatest in the northern regions of Southern Africa. The temperature is expected to increase by 10oC by 2060. Similarly, the semi-arid nature of South Africa means that future precipitation is projected to reduce by 5-10% by mid-century [2]. Small farms in the African region are projected to be particularly negatively affected by climate variability and change. The overall objective of this study is to characterize the present and future vulnerability of smallholder farming households in contrasting agro-ecological zones in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa using household survey data and revenue analysis to analyze the exposure and adaptive capacity to cope with climate change.


This study used data from a survey of 223 small farm households in the Eastern Cape Province, one of the poorest agrarian provinces in South Africa, to explore the exposure of small farmers to climate change, their adaptive capacity, and their vulnerability to climate change shock across major agro-ecological zones. Data on production of main staple foods and households’ assets and access to institutional facilities were analyzed using Principal Component Analysis (PCA). General Circulation Model (GCM) scenarios were used with the IIASA crop model (EPIC) to explore the impact of future plausible climate patterns on farmers’ income


Farmers in the Karoo zone are currently the most vulnerable to climate variability. Scenario analysis also shows that maize production in Southern Africa will be positively affected by climate change under both low-input and irrigated management systems, whereas potato yield will decrease. We estimated that smallholder farmers who significantly rely on maize can expect an increase of up to 45% revenue by 2050 if average estimated future yields materialize.


Institutional and infrastructural supports in form of access to credit and irrigation facilities are recommended for adequate adaptation to future climate change impact, in particular climate volatility, which is not taken into account in our yield projections.


[1] Benhin, JKA (2006). Climate Change and South African Agriculture: Impacts and Adaptation Options. CEEPA Discussion Paper No. 21. Special Series on Climate Change and Agriculture in Africa.
[2] Gbetibouo, A & Ringler, C (2009). How can African agriculture adapt to climate change: Mapping the South African farming sector's vulnerability to climate change and variability: A subnational assessment," Research briefs 15(3), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).


Abayomi Samuel Oyekale, Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, North-West, University Mafikeng Campus, South Africa
Marijn van der Velde and Hugo Valin, Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM), IIASA


Sunday Y. Hosu of the Alice Campus of the University of Fort Hare in Eastern Cape, South Africa, is a South African citizen. He was funded by IIASA's South African National Member Organization during the YSSP.

Please note these Proceedings have received limited or no review from supervisors and IIASA program directors, and the views and results expressed therein do not necessarily represent IIASA, its National Member Organizations, or other organizations supporting the work.

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Last edited: 23 March 2015


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