Climate Change, Mitigation and Adaptation – Ideas from the 1920s

E.H.L. Schwarz (1873-1928): Climate Change, Mitigation and Adaptation – Ideas from the 1920s

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

In 1977 a collection of essays was published to celebrate the centenary of the South African Philosophical Society, the antecedent of the Royal Society of South Africa (RSSAf). In his contribution on geology, Sidney Haughton gave short shrift to Ernest Hubert Lewis Schwarz (1873-1928), a fellow geologist who had been elected a Fellow of the RSSAf in 1908. Haughton mentioned Schwarz merely as one of the first Field Geologists employed by the Geological Commission established in the Cape Colony in 1895, giving no further details of his career or influence. As far as can be ascertained, there was no obituary for Schwarz in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa after his death, in Senegal, in 1928, although one appeared in Nature (1929), by Australian geologist J.W. Gregory. It is tempting to conclude from these absences that many of his peers in South Africa found it difficult to summarise Schwarz’s life and work and suggests that they were perhaps reluctant to do so.       As Gregory noted, Schwarz certainly held, and promoted, ‘advanced views which … were of daring unconventionality’, and these included not only his ideas on geology and climate, but also his opinions on the people of southern Africa as expressed in his book, The Kalahari and its Native Races (London, 1928). Scientists, of course, display a wide variety of personalities. Certainly, Schwarz was one of the more enthusiastic, original and controversial, and given our era of climate change and advanced technological expertise, some of his madcap ideas may still resonate a century later, while we continue to be shocked by his overt and virulent social Darwinism.

            Schwarz was born in London and studied at the Royal College of Science in London and thereafter at the School of Mines at Camborne, Cornwall, acquitting himself very well at both. An interest in mining drew Schwarz to Johannesburg in 1895, and the following year he was appointed geologist to the Cape of Good Hope’s newly established Geological Commission. Mountain (1968) mentions that relations in the Commission between Schwarz and his Cambridge-educated colleague Arthur W. Rogers, later Director of the Geological Survey of South Africa and in 1935-1936 President of the RSSAf, were often strained; Rogers being a cautious scientist, and Schwarz a speculative one, a ‘visionary, impatient of detail’. Schwarz was a ‘big picture’ man. Plug describes him as tall, gentle and introspective, a person who ‘found it difficult to accept disappointments. He was always full of ideas and explanatory hypotheses, and though these were not always fully worked out his suggestions were usually of value … [he was] inclined to draw quick conclusions … his interests were wide, rather than intensive’.

            In 1905, despite lacking a university degree, Schwarz was appointed the first Professor of Geology at Rhodes University College in Grahamstown and, jointly, Keeper of Geology at the Albany Museum. Until 1927 he was the sole staff member in the Rhodes department, teaching students who were mainly surveyors. Schwarz, however, remained preoccupied with his own research and writing. Professionally, and as a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3), he wrote numerous books and more than a hundred official reports and papers in academic and other journals that often included his own attractive field sketches. He studied the hydrological geology of the eastern Cape in detail and became an expert on the region. Among his books are Causal Geology (London, 1910), South African Geology (London, 1912), and A South-African Geography (London, 1921). He also wrote prolifically for newspapers and even published a romantic novel. Keen to communicate an understanding of science to the public, soon after his arrival in southern Africa, Schwarz edited The Scientific African, a short-lived Cape Town journal (with no connection to the current Elsevier journal of this name).

            In Schwarz’s time it was widely accepted by many scientists that they lived in an era of increasing desiccation and that the ‘arid wastelands’ of the globe – southern Africa and central Australia among them – merely required more water to transform them into cultivated oases, filled with productive settler agriculturalists. It was argued that large bodies of water altered the climate, and that forests and other plant growth increased cloud formation and thus stimulated more precipitation as well as reducing evaporation. Moreover, as is still the general belief, increased river flow after floods and storms was regarded as more useful to humans when impounded in dams and used for irrigation, thus preventing ‘excess’ water from being ‘wasted’ by flowing into the sea, together with valuable topsoil.

            Schwarz became familiar with the geology and hydrology of the Kalahari, as well as with African landscapes like those around Lake Chad. The Kalahari was, he said, ‘The most awful country to be found anywhere – the very last place outside the Arctic regions where man would choose to dwell.’ But, he argued, humans and their technology could bring about change. The idea of restoring the ancient drainage system of the Kalahari had been suggested in 1897 by Ferdinand Gessert, a German settler in what is now Namibia, but Schwarz took it further, working it out in detail and involving the South African government. Apparently, Schwarz began discussing his idea in 1910, but first outlined it thoroughly in The Star in 1918 and then published ‘The desiccation of Africa: The cause and the remedy’, a report of the S2A3, that same year. This was followed by his full-length book, The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption (Cape Town, 1920).  

            The contention was that, in times past, large permanent lakes had existed in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) at Etosha Pan, the Makgadikgadi Pans, and Lake Ngami, and that their catchment areas had been drained by the advancing Kunene, Chobe, and Zambesi rivers. The loss of the lakes had, according to Schwarz, decreased the rainfall to the Kalahari basin from the mid-1800s. Indeed, fishing boats had been recorded at Lake Ngami around that time. It seemed simple logic, therefore, that restoring the lakes would bring more rain, possibly as much as 250mm per year and that droughts would come to an end. Re-creating the central Kalahari lakes would be accomplished by damming the Kunene and Chobe rivers close to the junction with the Zambesi, diverting water through the Okavango swamps and dry river beds into the Makgadikgadi Pans, creating a lake of some 40 000-50 000 km2 and even increasing the flow of the Orange River via the Molopo. Doing so would be integral to the modernisation of the subcontinent, rural agricultural life would thrive, irrigation would enable many crops to grow, and it would ‘retard the march of the desert’. Schwarz badgered the South African authorities in the 1920s, a period that saw a change of government in 1924. There are letters in the national archives in which Schwarz set out his project in the hope of persuading the state to fund it. As a very large sum of money was involved (£2 to £4 million), and because the political situation was particularly volatile at this time, the government was hesitant to do more than sanction a survey of the situation. Schwarz countered that drought had cost South Africa some £11 million.

            The so-called ‘Schwarz scheme’ captured the imagination of many people, in the same way as did the Reid and Bradfield Schemes that suggested similar interventions in western Queensland. Diverting rivers and floodwaters would fill the extensive salt pans of the ‘dead centre’, thus saving ‘the inland of Australia from becoming a barren wilderness’. The South African public generally supported Schwarz’s imaginative venture – indeed lobbied government to take action. But many scientists were more cautious, questioning Schwarz’s geographical assumptions as well his calculations of any future benefits. The matter came before Parliament early in 1925, when F.J. du Toit, MP for Victoria West, tabled a motion for government to consider the scheme seriously. He argued (as did others) that not only would flooding the dry lakes ameliorate the climate, but also that the resulting employment would solve the ‘poor white’ problem. This was, of course, being tackled in the construction of the Hartbeespoort and other large dams at that time. An initial survey was agreed upon, at a cost of around £5 000, and the air force assisted in the ‘Kalahari Reconnaissance’ that was conducted between June and October 1925 by the Department of Irrigation under the eminent geologist Dr Alexander L. du Toit. After the survey (in which Schwarz participated for a while) Du Toit and his team concluded that many of Schwarz’s calculations were wrong, ‘exaggerated’, or could not be supported by reliable data. Du Toit’s scathing report came as a shock to Schwarz. His scheme was therefore rejected, and this was confirmed in Parliament, after a heated debate, in March 1927.

            Schwarz died the following year, still convinced that he was correct. His scheme, however, had a longer life, his widow and others continuing the campaign. In 1937 (Brownlee has 1935), bowing to public pressure, government conducted a further aerial survey of the Kalahari under Deneys Reitz, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, and yet another, in 1945, under Andrew Conroy, then Minister of Lands and Irrigation. None found in favour of the scheme, Reitz regarding it as ‘wholly untenable’, a view that Brownlee described as showing a ‘timid spirt’ and ‘a lack of imagination without which no great scheme is ever brought to fruition’.

            In Bloemfontein, in 1933, the Schwarz Kalahari Thirstland Redemption Society (SKS) was established. In an annotated pamphlet containing some of Schwarz’s writing, SKS member John G. Collett, then living in Wakkerstroom, recorded that he had distributed about 2 000 pamphlets since 1949 (when the society was resuscitated; another was founded in Rhodesia) and ‘sent them to every Prime Minister, Ministers of Agriculture and Water Affairs. None of them are interested. I am absolutely certain that if this scheme is not put into operation that southern Africa is doomed as much as if it was smashed up with atomic bombs. One day the Vaal Dam will dry up …’  

            In our era of sophisticated geoengineering, Schwarz might, perhaps, take some comfort in the technological achievements regarding water supply, and even with the climate modification plans that have surfaced in the Anthropocene. As far as Botswana is concerned, the Savuti channel, for example, dries up for long periods and then flows again intermittently owing to tectonic activity. Lake Ngami has refilled from time to time. South Africa’s continual thirst for more water has led to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, creating massive dams that would have been unthinkable in Schwarz’s time and that have changed the geography of that country. The watershed of the Drakensberg has been re-engineered with the Drakensberg Pumped Water Storage Scheme that stores hundreds of millions of litres of KwaZulu-Natal water in the Sterkfontein Dam that is released into the Vaal Dam via the Wilge River. In addition, clouds are routinely seeded to produce rain and climate engineering ideas for changing the colour of clouds to manage solar radiation and reduce global warming are gaining traction.


Barnard, W.S., ‘“Om de Ngami en Makarikari meren op nieuw te vullen”: Die Schwarzplan as dwaling’, South African Geographer, 19 (1992), pp.59-75.
Barnard, W.S., Encountering Adamastor: South Africa’s Founding Geographers in Time and Place. Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, 2016.
Brownlee, F., ‘Kalahari irrigation’, Journal of the Royal African Society, 38(150) 1939, pp.109-113.
Collett, J.G., Prevent Desert Encroachment with the Schwarz-Kalahari Scheme. N.p.: Schwarz Kalahari Society, n.d. [1949]
Gregory, J.W., ‘Obituary: Prof. E.H.L. Schwarz’, Nature, 123 (1929), pp.100-101.
Haughton, S.H., ‘South African geology’, in Brown, A.C., ed., A History of Scientific Endeavour in South Africa. Cape Town: Royal Society of South Africa, 1977, pp.339-356.
Jubb, R.A., ‘On trek with Schwarz in the Kalahari’, African Wildlife, 33(3) 1979, pp.20-23.
Mackenzie, L.A., Report on the Kalahari Expedition 1945 being a further investigation into the water resources of the Kalahari and their relationship to the climate of South Africa. Report of the Division of Irrigation. Pretoria: Government Printer, 1946.
McKittrick, M., ‘An empire of rivers: The scheme to flood the Kalahari, 1919–1945’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 41(3) 2015, pp.485-504.
Mountain, E.D., ‘Schwarz, Ernest Hubert Lewis’, Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. 1. Pretoria: HSRC, 1968, pp.702-703.
Noakes, A.W., Water for the Inland: A Brief and Vivid Outline of Conditions in the Outback of Queensland in which is Embedded the Reid and Dr Bradfield Water Schemes. South Brisbane: Rallings & Rallings, 1947.
Plug, C., ‘Schwarz, Mr Ernest Hubert Lewis (geology, geography)’, S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science (Accessed 13 May 2018).
Schwarz, E.H.L., The Kalahari and its Native Races: Being the Account of a Journey through Ngamiland and the Kalahari. London: Witherby, 1928.
Schwarz, E.H.L., The Kalahari or Thirstland Redemption. Cape Town: Maskew Miller; Oxford: Blackwell, n.d. [1920]
Union of South Africa, Debates of the House of Assembly 2nd Session 5th Parliament 13th February to 15th April 1925. Vol. 3 (13th February to 15th April). Cape Town: Cape Times.
Union of South Africa, Debates of the House of Assembly 4th Session 5th Parliament 28th January to 29th June 1927. Vol. 8 (28th January to 14th April). Cape Town: Cape Times.
Union of South Africa, Department of Irrigation, Report of the Kalahari reconnaissance of 1925. Pretoria: Government Printer, 1926.

Archival sources:
SAB GG 1305 35/56 1920-1925
SAB TES 7579 /F78/66 1925