Let's pull together to stave off drought disaster

THIS is one of the nightmares I’ve woken up to on many a night: the sun gets hotter and hotter until we little human insects boil inside our own skins…

Well, that’s what last week felt like, with the daily high edging closer and closer to 40 degrees Celsius, as my husband and I tried to battle the heat and pack up for our annual week away. In the Free State. Thirty kilometres from Senekal, where last I heard the taps are bone dry, and people are fighting over water.

It was the now-famous drone footage of the Free State that I found heartbreaking and terrifying. All that brown, brown land as far as the eye could see. It looked like death.

“I get hundreds of people who phone me and cry,” says NC Schoombee, a 27-year-old up-and-coming Free State farmer who has become involved in organising help for farmers across the country with the Boere in Nood Groep (Farmers in Need Group); you can find it on Facebook.

The group is desperately trying to save some of the national herd by buying bales of feed from areas (such as the Eastern Cape) where it’s available, and raising funds to transport it across country, to feed starving livestock. (It’s a hellishly expensive job; when I spoke to NC, the group had assessed a need for 55 000 bales, which would cost around R50m including transport, he said, an amount that is just not within reach.)

“Dis ‘n absolute ramp (It's an absolute disaster),” says NC, as he’s known. It is going to take more than just one good rainy season to recover. While very big commercial farmers may have the resources to ride out this unprecedented, climate-change-driven El Niño, smaller farmers, black and white, are losing precious resources – dead stock and vanished topsoil scoured from the land. Some will never recover.

Mealies that look like onions

One member of the group posted on Facebook that a farming neighbour has a guest house, and a guest said to her: “Your onions aren’t doing very well.”

“Those aren’t onions,” she replied. “They’re mealies!”

In the small parts of the so-called Mealie Triangle where maize has been planted, it reaches a certain height and then the heat overtakes it, says NC, and it starts shooting mealie heads prematurely, with disastrous consequences. We are, as a result, going to have to import about five million tons of maize – a vital staple food.

The mighty Orange River ran dry in late December near Aliwal North. Pictures circulated of its cracked bed, pictures that would make anyone who grew up in this arid country quake. Have you ever heard of this huge flow of water disappearing, anywhere along its length?

Perhaps even more scary is the fact that the Malimabat’so River, which feeds the Katse Dame in Lesotho, has dried up. The Katse is the second largest dam in Africa and feeds water to South Africa, vital water. I remember tales told of the great drought in the Karoo in the 1960s (legend had it that some little children had never seen water fall from the sky and were terrified when at last it did so and their parents rushed out into the falling drops to rejoice.) But nothing like this.

Food and water security are absolutely crucial to our country. Really. I wish everyone would shelve their petty politicking, the infighting, the power plays, and think what this means to all of us. This isn’t something you can fix with money. If there’s not enough feed to be had anywhere in the country to keep the livestock under threat alive, no amount of money in the world will fill the gap.

We’ve had enough warning that a drought like this was possible. Did we prepare for it? I know, for example, that in the Eastern Cape boreholes and windmills are being fixed – should this not have been done earlier, in anticipation of this season? How much would it cost to fix pipes, dams and even lay new infrastructure to buffer our farmers against the terrible fate they’re facing now?

What are both government and the private sector doing to salvage what can be saved in our agricultural sector – which I would argue is something much more important than profit-and-loss? (I’m just asking – perhaps much has been done. Perhaps this drought has made public officials rethink, given them creative ideas for the future. I hope so.)

Will we remember 2016 as the year of the Great Dying? It’s already happening – thousands of cattle have died across much of the country, with five provinces declared disaster areas. Knowing the kind of knife edge huge numbers of our people live on, I fear the dying of people will follow. The old, the sick and the babies first.

Boere in Nood is one example of how we can pull together in the teeth of disaster; Water Shortage SA, which trucks bottles of water to areas where the taps have dried up, is another. Dear countrymen and women, we can do more. Let us pull together, in whatever way we can, to head off disaster. Let all the creative minds in South Africa create an ark to save lives.

We can do this, we’ve shown it in the past. And when we do, when we care for each other and work as one, it is something beautiful to see.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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