Characteristics of Arid Areas in SA

For additional information about the South African arid areas:
Doreen Atkinson, Lochner Marais
District Socio-Economic Profile and Development Plans

The arid areas extend throughout the south-western parts of the sub-continent. The Karoo, for example, is a vast and diverse area.

The Karoo

The Karoo stretches about 600 km from Calvinia in the west to Cradock in the east, and also about 600 km from Marydale in the north to Calitzdorp in the south.There are at three main sub-regions: The Nama-Karoo (northern parts), the Klein-Karoo (southern parts) , and the False Karoo (in southern Free State). It straddles four provinces. These areas have different climatic features, which has led to different agricultural and population profiles. There are at least 66 towns which are located within the Karoo, or on its borders:

Nama Karoo:

  • Northern Cape: Calvinia, Williston, Carnarvon, Vosburg, Prieska, Hopetown, Britstown, De Aar, Victoria West, Fraserburg, Richmond, Colesberg, Orania, Phillipstown, Petrusville, Hutchinson, Douglas, Griquatown, Sutherland, Loxton, Williston, Hanover, Strydenburg, Marydale.
  • Eastern Cape: Noupoort, Middelburg, Graaff-Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda, Cradock, Aberdeen, Steytlerville, Pearston, Somerset East (bordering on Midlands), Willowmore, Cookhouse, Venterstad, Hofmeyr, Steynsburg (bordering on Sneeuberg), Klipplaat
  • Western Cape: Beaufort West, Laingsburg, Matjiesfontein, Murraysburg, Prince Albert, Leeu-Gamka, Merweville, Tankwa-Karoo area (north of Tulbagh).

False Karoo (Skynkaroo):

  • Free State: Philippolis, Fauresmith, Luckhoff, Koffiefontein, Oppermansgronde, Bethulie, Gariep Dam, Springfontein, Trompsburg, Edenburg


  • Oudtshoorn, Uniondale, Ladismith, Calitzdorp, De Rust, Vanwyksdorp, Zoar, Haarlem.

The sheer size of the Karoo has meant that it has never been administered as a coherent entity, with its own specific needs. Before 2000, it was administered by rural Divisional Councils and urban Town Councils in the erstwhile Cape Province and Free State. Since 2000, it straddles four provinces and 10 District municipalities. It also includes 31 Local Municipalities: 7 in the Eastern Cape, 2 in the Free State, 14 in the Northern Cape, and 8 in the Eastern Cape.


Free State

Northern Cape

Western Cape

Eastern Cape


The Karoo shades into other arid areas, notably the Kalahari, Bushmanland, Namaqualand, and the Richtersveld. These areas are traversed by several jurisdictional boundaries, including municipal, provincial and national boundaries. In Botswana, the arid southern areas straddle four jurisdictions (Ghanzi, Kgalagadi, Ngwaketse and Kweneng); and in Namibia, it includes the two southern districts (Karas and Hardap), as well as the western part of Namibia.

The arid areas are sparsely populated, and in some areas, the population density is less than 1 or 2 person per km2. This has contributed to their political insignificance, as the various provincial and national governments have invariably given more attention to their more populous regions.

In the Karoo, the economy been largely based on extensive sheep and goat farming. Irrigation agriculture is concentrated along the rivers, mainly the Orange River, the Fish River, the Sundays River and the Riet River. During the last fifty years, extensive stock farms have grown even larger, and shed a great deal of labour. Many of these unemployed farm workers have drifted to the towns, to join the ranks of the urban unemployed. The recent advent of game farming has contributed to this trend, although opportunities in agri-tourism and eco-tourism have created scope for new and more sophisticated types of employment.

Most of the Karoo towns have grown in size, due to in-migration, and because of the South African social grant system (which encourages people to stay where they are). But the urban economy of the arid areas is very fragile. Typically, the business sector is small, and there is virtually no industrial base. There is an incipient informal sector in most towns, often linked to pension pay-out days.

Although the Karoo towns are fairly well provided with infrastructure, there are worrying aspects of its socio-economic profile:

  • Poverty levels are high, due to high levels of unemployment, and increasing rates of illness (HIV/AIDS and TB)
  • Communal farming on municipal peri-urban land is creating environmental challenges
  • A large proportion of income is derived from social grants, with social consequences that are not fully understood
  • Local economies of small towns are characterised by weak multipliers, because a great deal of purchasing power is spent in the larger centres, or metropolitan areas situated outside these areas
  • The influx of migrants from the farms to the towns, and the migration from the more densely populated areas in the Eastern Cape towards the Karoo, are creating immense pressures on the existing infrastructure
  • Due to the arid nature of the area, surface and underground water supplies are insufficient to provide higher levels of infrastructure (such as waterborne sanitation), which creates grievances and resentment
  • The conditions of life of remote settlements of farm workers tend to be poor, with low mobility, and difficult access to health, education, recreation and shopping amenities
  • HIV/AIDS levels are reputed to be high, particularly on national transport routes, and mortality rates are already reflecting this
  • There is an out-migration of skilled people, due to a lack of local economic opportunities.
  • Increasing aridity, due to global warming, may lead to rising unemployment, declining underground water levels, and greater difficulties for commonage farmers.

Nevertheless, the arid areas have important economic and social assets:

  • Infrastructure in the towns is generally good, and represents a great deal of sunk capital in housing, water, sanitation, roads and other infrastructure
  • The game industry is becoming an important foreign exchange earner in the area
  • Agricultural expertise is high, with skilled and experienced commercial farmers, who are often eager to become involved in land reform, agricultural support and other initiatives
  • Social services are generally good, and include clinics, schools, banks, post offices and retail facilities
  • Some of the towns have developed significant tourism potential, with niche attractions and activities
  • There is a growing phenomenon of “reverse migration”, whereby middle class city dwellers are moving to the rural areas, and this brings in new sources of capital, expertise and developmental initiative
  • There are growing numbers of black and coloured commonage farmers, who represent a nucleus of new commercial farmers in the future.

Map designed by Delphine Digout, UNEP/GRID-Arendal, based on information provided by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UNEP, Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report (TAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).