Detecting and Mapping Drought and Its Human Impacts Earn Geographer a PhD

Dr Shenelle Lottering has graduated with a PhD in Geography for her thesis which investigates the socio-economic and environmental impacts of drought on small-scale farmers in uMsinga.

The research also tested the Temperature Vegetation Water Stress Index tool to detect and map drought occurrence, a novel piece of research for southern Africa.

Lottering, who lectures part-time in UKZN’s Discipline of Geography in Pietermaritzburg, worked with the Farmer Support Group at UKZN to collect data from small-scale farmers and key informants using questionnaires, interviews and participatory rural appraisal research methods, to bridge the gap between human geography and spatial science.

Lottering discovered that despite the significant impact of drought on small-scale farmers and their livelihoods, the individuals displayed great resilience through numerous coping mechanisms. These, she found, are the product of indigenous knowledge systems developed over generations, which help communities adapt to drought and prove essential to their survival, considering their limited resources and minimal government assistance.

‘This is important for human geography as the implications of climate change are usually focused on the environmental aspects rather than the social implications caused by drought, particularly for marginalised rural communities predominantly involved in subsistence agriculture,’ said Lottering.

Lottering highlighted the importance of establishing partnerships between non-governmental organisations and governments to ensure that communities receive effective support during periods of drought through the development of appropriate policy interventions for drought management. While most adaptive strategies are reactive, effective drought management would require the adoption of a proactive approach developed in advance.

‘This can be achieved through the availability of early warning systems to all stakeholders involved in drought management, which will provide decision-makers with the relevant information regarding the onset and severity of drought in a given area,’ she said.

Lottering added that indigenous knowledge should be harnessed for drought adaption in the context of research and policy intervention.

Lottering, who completed all her degrees at UKZN before becoming a part-time lecturer more than three years ago, enjoyed Geography at high school, and developed a passion for human geography during her undergraduate and honours studies. Her interest in rural development and working with marginalised communities, combined with the challenges of climate change, led her to consider how people residing in rural areas, particularly small-scale farmers, cope with climate-related natural hazards.

Lottering is passionate about teaching and research, and plans to pursue an academic career. The mother of three sons says completing her PhD was a balancing act, motivating her to discover an organisation to support mothers in academia, who encourage women that – despite the unique challenges they face – it is possible to be a wife, a mother and still achieve their career aspirations. Lottering herself struck this balance through strict time management, motivation and discipline.

In the final year of her PhD studies, Lottering had to deal with the death of her father, whose unwavering support, she said, had motivated her to complete her research as a tribute to him.

Lottering acknowledged the vital support of her masters and PhD supervisors Dr Sumaiya Desai and Professor Paramu Mafongoya, saying Desai taught her what it takes to be a good researcher and equipped her with the skills she needed, while Mafongoya provided important motivation and taught her to employ independent, critical thinking.

Lottering also thanked her husband, fellow lecturer in Geography Dr Romano Lottering, for being her biggest support system and pillar of strength.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied