In semiarid regions, water scarcity is one of a number of stresses that shape livelihood vulnerability. With climate change, it is predicted that rainfall in South Africa will become more uncertain and variable in the future, exposing more people to water insecurity.

At the same time, the impacts of disease, a lack of institutional capacity, and limited livelihood opportunities can combine to limit adaptive capacity. Therefore, adaptation to changing climate should not be viewed in isolation but instead in the context of social, economic, and political conditions, all of which shape local community vulnerability and people’s ability to cope with and adapt to change.

This study uses a qualitative-quantitative-qualitative framework, including the use of a stated preference survey, to identify the drivers of agro-ecosystem change, to understand the capacity of households to cope with droughts, and to determine the ability of local institutions to respond to crises.

The analysis suggests that the capacity of the agro-ecosystem to remain productive during droughts is decreasing, individual/household adaptive capacity remains low, and institutional capacity faces considerable barriers that prevent it from supporting households to adapt to multiple stresses. This research adds weight to the claim that vulnerability reflects multiple forces and processes, and that multiple stresses, that are agroecological, socioeconomic, and institutional in nature, need to be examined to understand vulnerability and to prevent maladaptation.

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