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Household characteristics in rural South Africa : implications for natural resources and development


Before examining the effects of household characteristics and experience of adult mortality on household resource use, we first consider general patterns of use of fuelwood and water in order to understand the context. Although the centrality of water in livelihoods is a given, the high reliance on fuelwood is an important finding. Over 90% of households used fuelwood, despite the fact that over 80% of all households had electricity. This illustrates the context of poverty, in which electricity and appliances are expensive luxuries. Qualitative evidence from the interviews substantiates this fact. Levels of use of both fuelwood and water are relatively frugal, indicating poor availability or access. Most households (78.4%) used 100 litres or less per day. The substantial proportion of households purchasing fuelwood also points to local scarcity of this resource around some villages, mainly due to overexploitation and land-use change. For both resources, the female head or wife and her daughters were primarily responsible for household provisioning.

Our first research question, regarding the associations between natural resource selection, use, consumption and acquisition strategies and the household characteristics of size, composition and economic status in rural South Africa, sets the stage for examination of mortality impacts by initially exploring other household factors as associated with resource use. Household characteristics influenced relatively few resources use variables for fuelwood and water. Electricity was used less often as an energy source for cooking by larger households, a plausible estimate given that larger households have more individuals for which to provide and more hands available for wood collection. Household size had no effect on levels of water consumption. The interviews also provide evidence that households are clearly very conservative in their resource utilization as daily homestead fires are carefully tended, burning only the requisite amount of wood.

Regarding acquisition strategies, the results of the regression models suggest that household composition and socio-economic status have limited, but statistically significant effects on by whom fuelwood and water is acquired. In particular, larger households are more likely to have a male head who harvests wood or collects water. As would be expected, female heads are less likely to collect wood or water in households with relatively more male members.

The interviews shed qualitative light on decisions with regard to fuelwood collection strategies. Specifically, the in-person dialogues often reveal tradeoffs with regard to time and money. However, due to the absence of regular income, some households have no option but to acquire scarce fuelwood through harvesting. Finally, village context influenced the daily consumption of water and electricity : local fuelwood shortages drove increased reliance on electricity, while local water shortages resulted in sparing consumption of water.

Our second question focuses more directly on the relationship between household experience of the death of a prime-age adult member and patterns in household resource use. Recent adult mortality experience had little effect on water use, but was associated with an increased likelihood of a household making use of wood, especially for cooking, although the negative coefficient for mortality by socioeconomic status suggests that this association is lesser for households of higher socio-economic status. The implication is that poorer households impacted by an adult mortality are most likely to use fuelwood as their primary energy source. The mortality experience did not have a converse significant effect on the probability of using electricity for cooking or lighting. An interesting short-term impact was the widespread use of large amounts of fuelwood (mean = 750 kg) for catering purposes at funerals (84% of “mortality” households). Loss of an adult had an impact on household collection strategies for fuelwood and water. In examining the gender of the deceased within households with a male head collecting wood, we find that gender is evenly split. It is possible, then, that male heads are called to collection duty in households in crisis. This is further suggested by the negative coefficient estimate for years since mortality, as the likelihood of male heads harvesting wood declines as time passes. A similar pattern emerges for the collection of water.

Mortality experience had no discernable influence on household decision to buy wood instead of collecting it. However, despite these results, the qualitative interviews indicated that collecting, rather than buying, fuelwood was one of the cost-saving strategies engaged in by households which had lost a breadwinner. The non significant coefficients for purchasing wood in the “mortality” models may be as a result of confounding factors such as local availability, socioeconomic status, and the absence of the role of the diseased in the household economy in the models. The interviews revealed substantive and important impacts of an adult mortality on household coping strategies : mortality impacts are manifested by subtle, but important, alterations in task allocation and livelihood strategies, along with changes in related opportunity costs.

In general, patterns of change in the selection, use, consumption and acquisition strategies of households experiencing an adult mortality are clearly related to the role of the deceased in the household economy. If the deceased was a resource collector, for example, but did not engage in income-generating work outside of the household, their resource collection duties were typically taken on by other household members.

The most significant changes in the household economy were felt when the deceased had contributed wages. In some cases, the lost income had been used to purchase fuelwood and water, with household members subsequently being forced to collect wood and water on their own. The household’s longer-term social capital can also be compromised as these increases in collection time entail opportunity costs, including reduced time for schooling and, in some cases, for household chores such as tending gardens.

The qualitative interviews revealed that the passing of an adult member also impacted on the household’s food security and reliance on wild foods and foods from their gardens. Although not dealt with in the quantitative models, these results are important, as they further reflect human – environment interactions as shaped by experience of an adult mortality. The strongest associations between mortality and shifts in household food security appear in cases where the lost income had been used specifically to purchase groceries. Our interviews suggested that edibles collected from the local environment often replaced previously purchased goods. As clearly articulated by one respondent whose household had lost its primary wage earner, “locusts are now our beef.” Illustrating the household’s increased dependence on wild sustenance and their gardens following adult mortality experience.

Some households substituted bought foods with wild foods and crops form their gardens following the loss of a breadwinner. However, conversely, loss of household members who had done household chores forced other households to buy food which they had previously grown themselves, due to lack of household human resources.