Social-Ecological Resilience in a Dry Environment: People and Water Resources in the Little Karoo


The Little Karoo is a semi-arid environment with highly variable rainfall and has a history of recurrent floods and droughts. The historical development of the social-ecological system (SES) has been characterised by increasing exploitation of, and dependence on, water resources and decreasing resilience, both ecological and social. The modified SES is now fragile and vulnerable to climatic and economic volatility. These insights into the SES need to be evaluated and the social components,
particularly the approaches to natural resource management, so that the resilience of the ecological components can be rebuilt to support sustainable use of the water resources in the Little Karoo. This transformation can only be achieved by changing the way environmental goods and services are perceived, managed and used throughout society.


South Africa is a semi-arid country with an average rainfall of just 450 mm, compared with a global average of about 860 mm (NWRS, 2004). Only 9.0% of the rainfall ends up in the rivers or groundwater (NWRS, 2004); the rest evaporates or is transpired by plants. The rainfall also varies significantly from year to year and over longer cycles, which results in very low long-term yields from water supply schemes – with the maximum potential yield being about 3.7% of the rainfall (NWRS, 2004). Put in a different way, if the available water resources were distributed across the current population of South Africa it would be equivalent to about 966 people per Mm3 of water per year. This would almost be classified as a situation of chronic water scarcity (Falkenmark, 1989), well below the quantity required for an acceptable standard of living. The Little Karoo, which is situated in southern South Africa and is the focus of this chapter, exemplifies these characteristics because it includes some of the driest areas of the country and is very obviously facing serious water shortages (DWAF, 2004).

The aims of this study are: (a) to investigate the complex inter-relationships between people and their environment, with a focus on water resources, using the Little Karoo as a case study; and, (b) to use these insights to identify development options that could increase the resilience of the social ecological system (SES) of the Little Karoo and, thereby, facilitate progress towards sustainability. We use a resilience analysis approach to understand the SES and to develop ideas for re-building system resilience. This requires understanding of both the ecological and social components of the SES and their inter-dependencies, and the vulnerability of the social-economic system elements to the impacts of natural events and anthropogenic factors.

Following this introduction to the chapter, we next discuss some basic concepts relating to the resilience of SESs and their ecological and social components. We then describe the Little Karoo environment, focusing on water resource limitations and how these relate to key events in the social-economic history of the area. In the final sections of the chapter we propose some interventions that can aid in building the resilience of the SES, focusing on water management. It should be noted that our proposals complement an analysis presented in another chapter in this volume, which elaborates on other aspects of the Little Karoo social-ecological system and approaches to building system resilience. In this regard, O’Farrell et al. (Chapter 12, this volume) focus on land degradation and its impacts on the SES, using the town of Vanwyksdorp in the Little Karoo as a case study.