How can Droughts be Triggered by Physical (Natural) Conditions in South Africa

How can Droughts be Triggered by Physical (Natural) Conditions in South Africa:

South Africa is a region often troubled by droughts, affecting both its ecology and economy significantly. These droughts are primarily triggered by various physical or natural conditions, which include climate variability, changes in sea surface temperatures, topography, and land cover changes.

How can Droughts be Triggered by Physical (Natural) Conditions in South Africa

Below, we will explore how these natural conditions can initiate droughts in South Africa:

Climate Variability

One of the primary natural causes of drought in South Africa is climate variability. The region’s climate is greatly influenced by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an irregular periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean. ENSO events have two phases: El Niño, which often leads to drought conditions in Southern Africa, and La Niña, which can cause increased rainfall.

During El Niño years, the trade winds weaken or even reverse, preventing the upwelling of cool, nutrient-rich water off the coast of Peru. This alters global atmospheric circulation, disrupting the rainfall patterns worldwide, including South Africa. These disruptions can lead to decreased rainfall over many parts of South Africa, increasing the risk of drought.

Sea Surface Temperature Changes

Sea surface temperature changes in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans can influence rainfall patterns in South Africa. The warmer the sea surface temperatures, the higher the evaporation rate, contributing to increased moisture in the atmosphere. However, this doesn’t always translate to more rainfall. Complex ocean-atmosphere interactions can sometimes result in changes in the location and intensity of rainfall, potentially leading to drought conditions in certain areas.


South Africa’s diverse topography also contributes to its vulnerability to drought. The country is characterized by a central plateau, ringed by the Great Escarpment, and coastal plains. This varied topography influences the distribution of rainfall. Areas at higher altitudes, like the Drakensberg range, tend to receive more rainfall due to orographic lift, whereas lower-lying areas, particularly in the western and interior regions, are more susceptible to drought due to less rainfall.

Land Cover Changes

Land cover changes, such as deforestation and changes in vegetation cover due to human activities, can also influence drought conditions. Vegetation plays a vital role in the water cycle by intercepting rainfall, utilizing water through evapotranspiration, and facilitating infiltration into the soil. When there is significant vegetation loss, the ground’s ability to retain water diminishes, leading to a higher rate of evaporation and surface runoff, thus increasing drought susceptibility.


Droughts in South Africa are complex phenomena, influenced by a multitude of physical and natural conditions. The interplay of these factors, such as climate variability, changes in sea surface temperatures, topography, and land cover changes, results in varying drought conditions across the country. Understanding these triggers is crucial for developing effective drought monitoring and mitigation strategies. As climate change is expected to alter these natural conditions further, there is an urgent need for robust, adaptive strategies to manage future drought risk in South Africa.

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