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'Follow the water': Worsening drought dries up housing for rural Namibians

by Kim Harrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 March 2020 06:00 GMT

As rural Namibians move to cities to escape drought, many end up in makeshift houses in overcrowded informal settlements

By Kim Harrisberg

WINDHOEK, Namibia, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Pedro Dhila left his homestead in northern Namibia one year ago to seek greener pastures in the country's capital, he meant it both literally and figuratively.

Dhila hoped Windhoek would hold better opportunities after worsening drought in the Omusati region decimated his crops and nearly 30 of his cows.

But once he arrived in the Okuryangava slum, he faced a new set of problems: overcrowding, crime and poor sanitation.

"It is very painful to live here where decent land and housing is hard to find. We can't farm," said 37-year-old Dhila, sitting outside his friend's corrugated iron shack.

"I can think of 30 other families who left Omusati because of drought," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As rural Namibians move to cities to escape the worst drought in nearly a century, many find themselves navigating a no-man's land between over-saturated slums and the parched farmland they hope to one day return to, say activists and aid officials.

In 2015, nearly half of all Namibians lived in urban areas and that number is expected to reach 60% in 2030, according to Sweden's Lund University - while the U.N. estimates nearly 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050.

Last year, Namibian president Hage Geingob declared a state of emergency due to drought conditions, with five out of the previous six years experiencing low rainfall, according to the United Nations.

And in January, the southern African desert nation moved closer to famine after dam levels fell below 20%, a drop officials blame on climate change and prolonged drought.

As a result, families are "following the water", said Bernadette Bock, secretary general of the Namibia Red Cross Society.

Many end up in makeshift houses in informal settlements in Windhoek, Bock added from her office in Katutura, a neighbourhood made up of several settlements in the capital.

An informal settlement is described by the United Nations as unplanned, unauthorised residential housing units to which the occupants have no legal claim.

According to Namibia's statistics agency, in 2016 - the most recent data available - more than a quarter of urban and rural households were classified as "improvised housing units" or shacks, up from 16% five years earlier.

Residents of the Okuryangava slum, on the fringes of Katutura, said new shacks were being built on a weekly - sometimes daily - basis, although official data is scarce.


Katutura and its surrounding settlements are often the first points of entry for Namibians who can't afford to live in the capital's suburbs or inner city, Dhila explained.

But once the families arrive, they face health and safety risks like disease outbreaks and robberies, as well as fear of eviction if their homes have been built illegally, he added.

Katutura was originally a relocation site for evicted Namibians under South African colonisation in the 1960s - its name means "the place where people do not want to live" in the local Herero language.

Dhila, a retrenched accountant and subsistence farmer, shook his head as he remembered his 45 hectares (110 acres) of maize, tomatoes and spinach drying up and the slow death of his cattle.

Namibia's cabinet has pledged about $29 million to alleviate drought in the past year, although Dhila said he has yet to receive any assistance.

"I hope for support for communal farmers such as seeds, boreholes and livestock feeding. (Then we could) return to our farms," said the father of four.

Until then, he and his family remain in the slum, where he said they share one tap and one toilet with 120 other families - a figure confirmed by the Red Cross.

In January 2019, president Geingob declared the country's informal settlements a "human disaster" for their living conditions.

Bock described how the Red Cross arrived in the Kunene region, about 580km (360 miles) northwest of Windhoek, only to find entire villages empty after residents had abandoned their homes to head to the city in search of working water pumps.

The team had to drive 30km to find the village, closer to a hand pump with better water supply.

"We are seeing climate change every day. It is real," said Edmund Khoaseb, communications coordinator with the Red Cross.

"And the countries feeling it are not the ones responsible for the carbon emissions."


Katutura, made up of five different suburbs, is home to more than 5% of Namibia's population, according to the most recent government statistics.

As the slums in and around the area continue to expand, competition for land grows, intensifying demands on the city for housing, safety and sanitation.

Windhoek's mayor Fransina Kahungu moved her office from the city centre to the Babylon slum in January 2020 to "balance the way we provide services to all residents", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over WhatsApp.

The city's spokeswoman, Lydia Amutenya, said that in March Windhoek will begin rolling out the Flexible Land Tenure System.

The programme will assign all informal settlements in the country temporary security of tenure to protect residents from eviction, she said in emailed comments.

"Our interventions are aimed at turning the tables in favour of our residents and their much-needed basic amenities," said Kahungu.

But residents are sceptical that much will change, especially with housing challenges compounded by dwindling water reserves.

Rosa Namises, a veteran land and gender activist, was the first woman elected chief of the local Khomani San indigenous group in 2018, representing an estimated 4,000 people.

The Khomanin were moved from their ancestral land within the Khomas region during South African colonisation, she explained, with some resettled to surrounding farms in 1991 by the government after Namibia's independence.

"But farming is challenging with limited access to water," said Namises, 62, sitting in a Katutura community centre that she established in 1999 to assist vulnerable community members - including many Khomanin - living in the area.

"So (the Khomanin) move between the resettled land and the city hoping each space will bring some economic respite."

The city comes with its own challenges, residents said, such as expensive rates and taxes, water and electricity cuts, hepatitis outbreaks and crime.

"Katutura is not a place where we will find a life," said Namises. "We are uprooted. We will never be fully settled here."


For now, Namibia's slums continue to grow, putting more pressure on the people living in them.

A short walk from where Dhila sat outside his friend's home, Selma Naule, 35, opened her hands to reveal a bunch of dried worms in a small packet.

"People are hungry, so we eat what we can find," she said.

"Every day more houses pop up. Crime is getting worse. We don't feel safe," Naule added.

One of her neighbours, 48-year-old Tjitetjavo Tjiheke, a single mother of eight, nodded in agreement.

Her husband brought her to Windhoek 15 years ago, she said. Since his death in 2018, her dreams of returning to the Kunene region have dried up with the drought.

"Things are difficult here, but I know with the drought it is also bad there," she said, waving over her daughter to help her carry a small packet of groceries to their nearby house.

"We can't return. So, we are stuck."

($1 = 15.3800 Namibian dollars)

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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