Drought is one of the most disastrous climate-related threats in the world, and affects agriculture, the environment, infrastructure, and socioeconomic activities [1
]. Drought is defined as an insufficiency of rainfall over an extended period of time, usually a period of a month or more, resulting in a shortage of water and giving rise to adverse effects on vegetation, animals, and people [2
]. Droughts are an endemic feature of the African landscape [4
Agriculture is a major social and economic sector in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, contributing between 4% and 27% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP). The majority of the population in the region depend largely on agriculture for their primary source of livelihood, employment, and income [5
]. Smallholder farming is the most widely used method of agricultural farming in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the majority of the rural poor depending on it for survival [6
Drought is a recurrent phenomenon, occurring at different intensities in South Africa [7
]. The year 2015 was officially declared the driest year in South Africa since 1904 [8
]. Resource-poor farmers, whose productivity is highly threatened by frequent droughts, are affected the most. These droughts are due to the high inconsistency in inter-annual and intra-seasonal rainfall over most parts of South Africa [3
]. In semiarid regions such as the Free State province of South Africa, drought is the climate hazard that has the most harmful effect on farmers [10
]. The risks posed by drought are dependent on the interaction of drought with the vulnerability of both human and natural systems, as well as their ability to adapt [11
An important part of the solution to the drought problem is to put people who are vulnerable at the centre of communication for adaptation. This requires treating the end users of information not merely as a target audience, but as partners in co-learning through processes and products that reflect their own contributions [12
]. There are a number of success stories about adaptation among the most vulnerable, but they are mostly from developed countries and have been developed into projects [13
]. It has not become imperative to accelerate the process of replication and dissemination of best practices. Drought adaptation and coping strategies need to be promulgated among vulnerable farmers, and this requires innovative approaches towards knowledge sharing.
During periods of drought and beyond, smallholder farmers often lose their livelihood and investment in agriculture. During drought periods, smallholder farmers cannot manage or cope without external assistance in terms of relief packages from governmental and non-governmental agencies [14
]. Drought can lead to food shortages and social unrest, and can stall land redistribution. In many areas, drought has forced farmers to sell off some of their livestock to buy fodder for the remainder [15
]. Insufficient knowledge and the low levels of resources or livelihood assets available to farmers during vulnerable situations such as drought and other climate hazards limit coping and adaptation choices. In addition, reducing vulnerability is a key feature of improving smallholder farmers’ adaptive capacity and resilience to drought. However, the extent to which farmers’ levels of vulnerability influence their choice of coping or adaptation strategies remains uncertain. Studies focus on the socio-economic aspects of global climatic variability, almost exclusively restricting their analyses to the impact of the environment on agricultural production [16
Previous studies suggest that drought can affect different areas and people within the same area differently [17
]. Tung et al. [18
] revealed that there is an association between climate risk components, including hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. Eckstein et al. [19
] confirmed that emerging economies are more vulnerable to climate risk compared to developed economies. Abeygunawardena et al. [20
] are of the opinion that climatic changes progressively affect the poor and, as such, there is a need for adaptation strategies. The subsequent effects felt by households or individuals, as well as their coping strategies or mechanisms, could be influenced greatly by their previous status in terms of access to various capital or assets, such as wealth, information, financial aid, and loans [17
]. The problem is that vulnerability is not accounted for, and smallholder farmers are the ones who are affected the most, being the most vulnerable during the occurrence of drought because they depend on agriculture for their livelihood [19
]. Apata, Samuel, and Adeola [21
] found that perception and adaptation studies help to better understand communities’ perceptions of climate change and their existing adaptation strategies. Most of the existing studies have focused only on identifying farmers’ adaptation strategies without trying to discover which of the identified strategies are effective in coping with drought [12
]. Therefore, it is imperative to identify adaptation strategies that are effective and efficient in mitigating or adapting to the impact of drought.
The objective of this paper was to identify the current adaptation and coping measures used by smallholder farmers in Thaba ‘Nchu, with particular emphasis on farmers’ vulnerability to drought, as well as the adaptive measures or strategies that are effective in the study area. Secondly, we determined factors influencing their choice of adaptation strategies. In this way, the extent of farmers’ vulnerability and how this affects their choice of coping or adaptation strategies during drought was determined.
The study contributes to existing knowledge in the following ways: First, the study contributes to the pursuit of effective and sustainable adaptation strategies and coping measures in relation to drought in arid and semi-arid areas in Africa. This study does not focus only on general adaptation and coping measures within the farmer’s operational environment, but rather places emphasis on adaptation strategies and coping measures that are effective in the farmer’s geographical location. Second, we contribute to existing knowledge on traditional socio-economic factors that influence farmers’ adaptation strategies and coping measures by including vulnerability capital such as human, social, economic, institutional, natural, and political capitals.
2. Relevant Literature and Gaps
Studies suggest that farmers’ perceptions of the adoption of soil fertility management practices are strongly linked to their experiences and knowledge of the practices [22
]. For instance, Meijer et al. [23
] argue that the knowledge farmers have about a new practice is closely related to their perceptions of such a practice, which together frame their attitudes towards whether or not to adopt the practice. Ervin and Ervin [24
] argue that farmers’ personal characteristics, such as age and education, also play a critical role in framing their perceptions of adoption [25
Risk influences farmers’ attitudes to and perceptions of adoption behaviour [26
]. Risk-averse farmers easily adopt new conservation practices that they perceive to reduce risk [27
] and that are in line with their economic motivations and goals [28
]. In addition, personal farmer characteristics, such as wealth (livestock, land, cash), past farming experience, as well as age, greatly influence their risk attitudes and perceptions [26
Farmers’ education levels are used to determine whether education has an influence on how they perceive the amount of rainfall at the start of a farming season. According to Mamba [29
], education level influences perception. Farmers who correctly perceive the amount of rainfall expected at the beginning of the farming season are those who either have training in certain skills, or have a tertiary level or at least secondary level of education. However, the majority of farmers without any form of education wrongly perceive the amount of rainfall as low or average when, in fact, it is actually plenty or above average [29
]. Access to extension services and weather information affects how farmers perceive climate variables. Those farmers with access to extension services and weather data tend to perceive the amount of rainfall at the start of a farming season correctly.
Legesse, Ayele, and Bewket [30
] conducted a study in the Doba district of Ethiopia and found that the frequency of extension contact and training were the determining factors influencing perception and adaptation strategies. This is similar to a study by Kamruzzaman [31
], conducted in the Sylhet Hilly Region in Bangladesh, who also observed that access to weather information influences farmers’ perceptions. This means that access to extension services needs to be improved as a step towards improving farmers’ perceptions of climate change and variability [29
Bryan et al. [32
] found that gender is another important factor that influences how farmers perceive climate change and variability. This is not surprising for Swaziland, as women are more active in farming than men. It therefore is expected that, on the basis of their level of engagement in farming activities, which gives them experience, women are well positioned to perceive correctly the amount of rainfall at the beginning of each farming season, which is what they do every year [29
]. According to Adesina and Zinnah [33
], farmers’ perceptions of technology-specific traits have been a major factor conditioning adoption behaviour. This strongly confirms the hypotheses that farmers’ perceptions of the attributes of agricultural technologies determine their adoption choices.
Coping strategies can be classified as pre-drought and post-drought strategies. The classification depends on whether these strategies can help reduce the risk of or alleviate the impact on the shortfall in the production in a certain period [34
]. Several drought coping mechanisms are used around the world. Hazelton, Pearson, and Kariuki [34
], Panley [35
], Tideman and Khatana [36
], and Wilhite [37
] found that the use of drought-coping strategies is a major accomplishment that enables or provides the community with some capacity to cope. According to Hazelton, Pearson, and Kariuki [34
], drought-coping strategies are made up of a number of drought mitigation measures. Drought mitigation measures comprise ecological, social, environmental, and technological measures that aim to alleviate drought impacts and equalise losses [38
]. Therefore, adaptation to climate change includes all adjustments in behaviour or economic structure that reduce the vulnerability of society to changes in the climate system [39
In South Africa, Olaleye [17
] illustrated that farmers in the Free State province adopt coping mechanisms during periods of drought. These farmers’ coping mechanisms include gardening, selling vegetables, casual labour, selling livestock and livestock products such as milk, and limited use of credit. Unlike in other countries of the world, the sale of personal effects (such as jewellery or watches), household effects (such as furniture), or agricultural equipment to raise cash during drought emergencies occurs only in rare cases [17
]. The three most important adjustment mechanisms are the sale of livestock, the use of financial assets, and additional employment [17
] found that farmers in the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces of South Africa are willing to pay for livestock feed in order to maintain a nucleus herd of cattle. The majority of farmers indicate that they sell their livestock as a measure to cope with devastating drought conditions. The sale of livestock tends to be a drastic measure for emerging small- and medium-scale farmers to alleviate the impact of a drought disaster. Other coping strategies include movement of livestock to better grazing camps, purchase of remedies—particularly vitamin A supplements—fetching water for livestock, and weaning calves earlier than usual [40
According to Benhin [41
], farmers across South Africa have identified a number of adaptation options to address the changes they perceive in climatic conditions. The main adjustments in farming activities include adjusting farming operations, such as changes in planting dates of some crops, planting crops with a shorter growing period such as cabbage, and planting short-season maize. Others include the increased use of crop rotation and the early harvesting of some crops. Not all the adaptation strategies are effective in all geographical areas [34
]. However, none of the existing studies examined effective adaptation strategies in the Free State province of South Africa, particularly in Thaba ‘Nchu.
This study examined smallholder farmers’ adaption to drought in Thaba ‘Nchu. Effective adaptive strategies and measures were identified, as well as the vulnerability across different capitals. The respondents’ human capital vulnerability to drought in Thaba ‘Nchu was very high compared to their economic and social vulnerability. Influences such as age, gender, and marital status contributed towards human capital vulnerability. Different indicators contributed differently to drought vulnerability. The respondents were vulnerable to drought because they did not have enough resources to assist them during drought periods.
The majority of the respondents used water-use restriction as a coping strategy during drought periods. There were several reasons for this, such as the resources available, the effective coping strategy for that specific location/area, and the socio-economic status of the respondents. The government’s inadequate contribution to drought risk reduction, the age of the respondents, the monthly income of each household, and the inequality of decision-making powers between male and female respondents were also found to contribute greatly to choosing an effective adaptation strategy. The government was perceived to be active mainly in response. Government support was referred to as inefficient and not accessible by everyone. Respondents in Thaba ‘Nchu did not implement many coping strategies; however, they considered a number of them to be effective/necessary.
Policymakers should aim at improving and implementing those coping strategies that farmers deem necessary in order for farmers to have more options for coping strategies in the future. The Department of Agriculture should consider training smallholder farmers and providing resources that will enhance knowledge of other available coping strategies. Farmers who are better educated and skilled stand a better chance of coping with drought. Therefore it is recommended that policymakers should ensure that a government programme is implemented in order to help farmers with off-farm training, which will assist them in preparing for drought and help them with decision-making processes during periods of drought.
Our study reveals that the inclusion of vulnerability capitals in climate adaptation choice models presents meaningful insights that are needed for policy design and measures aimed at assisting vulnerable farmers in periods of drought. Therefore, future studies should consider estimating the vulnerability status of farmers and investigating its impact on their choice of climate-related adaptation strategies. The study is not without limitations. Firstly, the study was conducted in the Free State province of South Africa. Therefore, future studies should examine the effectiveness of the identified adaptation strategies and coping measures in other provinces of South Africa. Secondly, the study focused only on smallholder farmers, and we therefore suggest that future work should replicate the study among medium- and large-scale farmers to ascertain whether their effective adaptation and coping measures are similar to or different from those of smallholder farmers.