'We are going to lose our land': Sutherland farmers pleading for help amid 6-year drought

2019-04-18 21:43

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The farming community of Sutherland in the Karoo is begging for help as they watch the lives of farmworkers, farmers and shopkeepers fall apart because of a prolonged six-year drought.

"Our situation is grim," said Hester Obermeyer, a member of the region's drought-relief committee.

"Farmers plan for one, two years of drought. But never in their wildest dreams did they think a drought would last this long.

"Nobody could foresee six years," she said.

Over 200 farm workers have been laid off by farmers who are defaulting on their loans, unable to pay their debts for feed or fertiliser. Some who are able to eke a crop of potatoes from the dry ground, cannot afford to buy fuel to get their harvest to market.

The town which is famous for its giant telescope, is also faced with the fact that each farm worker was supporting at least seven people. The combination of joblessness and cash-strapped farmers could be catastrophic if help does not come soon.

"Some of the farmworkers stand near where the animal feed is being driven into town by donors and when the truck arrives, they rush forward to help take the bales off, hoping they will get a few rand," says Obermeyer. 

'We cannot cope'

Sheep are dying in such high numbers from hunger or unable to fight bacteria that they have dropped from 400 000 before the drought to the 57 000 counted on April 8.

All of this leaves farmers with severely depleted incomes, and they are unable to pay off loans.

The drought is having the ripple effect of stripping businesses in the region of their normal turnover, as farmers do not have money to pay off their accounts, or replenish anything.

The only bank in town - Standard Bank - is closing at the end of April, so anybody who needs to do face-to-face banking has to find the fuel to drive to Worcester. 

"We cannot cope," said Obermeyer. "We are going to lose our land."

Even the local home for the aged is feeling the pinch.

In better days the farmers used to chip in large amounts to supplement the coffers at a home for the aged, whose only income is their South Africa Social Security Agency (Sassa) pensioner grants. 

Tremendous strain 

The first to go, are the adult nappies they need, which are extremely expensive, and their children simply cannot afford to buy them. 

"There is now no money," said Obermeyer. 

The terrain itself is under severe stress, with underground water tables dropping, and bushes with no leaves so the plants are unable to photosynthesise. 

Save our Sheep founder Derick Hanekom said that there is so little greenery left that the sheep surround the farm house and bleat for food.

"The situation on the ground is terrible," he said. 

Gift of the Givers has been assisting with drilling boreholes for the region but pumps also have to be purchased for some of the farmers who initially thought they would be fine. Farmers are chipping in with what they can to contribute to the costs of the relief, but they too are struggling.

READ: Gift of the Givers steps in to save Sutherland

On Thursday it was announced that Santam would donate R300 000 to the Agri SA Drought Relief Fund. 

"The ongoing drought in Sutherland in the Northern Cape has caused a devastating decline in the sheep breeding population and placed the town's economy under tremendous strain," a statement said.

"In light of this, leading South African insurer Santam has donated R300 000 to the Agri SA Drought Relief Fund which aims to provide relief to farmers, farm workers and the community of Sutherland." 

It is hoped that this would also help farmers raise the sheep that are the "backbone" of the town.

Hanekom said people feel that rain is expected "any day now", but even if it rains, farmers will have to start from scratch again to rebuild all they have lost. This will take years.

Obermeyer said a multitude of towns in the region are struggling through the drought. The Sutherland Drought Committee, Gift of the Givers, Boere in Nood and other philanthropists are doing their best, but they need more help. 

Obermeyer said people from as far afield as Brits in North West are prepared to help and send them animal feed at no cost for the drivers or use of the trucks. 

However, fuel is so expensive that their philanthropy cannot go as far as filling up the tanks of the trucks. 

Obermeyer said that fuel companies could make a profound difference to the offers of assistance by just filling up the tanks of those trucks at no charge. 

"We are begging for petrol," she said. 

Read more on:    drought  |  land
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