SA prays for rain after drought losses

iSimangaliso Wetland Park near St Lucia. The estuary is drying up because of the drought. Water only covers 30% of the area it is supposed to. Picture: Alet Pretorius
iSimangaliso Wetland Park near St Lucia. The estuary is drying up because of the drought. Water only covers 30% of the area it is supposed to. Picture: Alet Pretorius

South Africa is holding its breath to see if it will escape the drought that has crippled the country over the past year.

Hopes of a bumper summer rainfall season flourished as weather reports indicated that a La Niña event was forming.

However, reports this month cautioned that there were no guarantees that La Niña would form.

If it did, a much weaker event was expected than originally thought.

La Niña generally brings normal or greater-than-normal rainfall to South Africa’s summer crop areas, along with cooler, wet weather in the summer.

The La Niña prediction was only a possibility, not a sure fact, said John Purchase, CEO of the Agricultural Business Chamber.

“South Africa must not rely on it as our saving grace. There is no guarantee that it will happen,” he said.

Forecasters in the US last month reduced the odds of La Niña forming this year and maintained them this week, while Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the UN weather agency warned that any event would probably be weak.

The El Niño phenomenon caused a devastating drought in South Africa over the past year, and last year the country received its lowest rainfall since 1904. South Africa’s key summer crops performed dismally.

South Africa only managed to produce 7.2 million tons of maize, down 28% from last year’s 9 million tons.

Purchase said South Africa used about 11 million tons, which means the county would have to import about 4 million tons to feed itself.

While some winter rains have brought relief, South Africa is not out of the woods.

Eight of the nine provinces are still declared disaster zones. If another drought hit the country this summer, it would be disastrous, said Purchase.

“Commercial farmers with strong balance sheets were able to absorb the drought’s blow, but it took its toll. They will not be able to absorb another knock,”
he said.

Because South Africa had to import food to make up the shortfall, the low international food prices were a godsend.

“It could have been so much worse,” Purchase said, adding that the rand’s good performance in the past few weeks also softened the blow.

As a result, South Africa’s food security did not reach the depths of despair that were widely expected earlier this year.

While there had been a spike in domestic food prices, Purchase speculated that they would peak in September/October and then decrease.

“Food security is very much based on the affordability of food, and while we had a relative ­­close shave in South Africa, we were fortunate that the lower prices made the drought a bit easier to absorb,” he said.

Globally, food prices fell modestly in July after increasing for five months in a row, a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation food price index indicated recently.

Also, the Global Food Security Index, an authoritative report issued annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit, showed at the end of July that South Africa’s food security was the highest in Africa south of the Sahara.

The report, commissioned by DuPont, ranked South Africa 47th globally and 10th among upper-middle income countries.

But Prabdeep Bajwa, regional business director for DuPont Pioneer Africa, said the severe drought would have a definite effect on next year’s report.

This year’s report cited South Africa’s food safety net programmes as a big strength, while the country scored evenly on agricultural infrastructure. Bajwa said South Africa’s excellent technology also built resilience.

Purchase said South Africa’s strong agricultural policies and good infrastructure had indeed ensured some resilience towards the drought.

But while South Africa had been relatively fortunate in surviving on minimal rain, its drought-hit neighbours were reeling.

Lewis Hove, South African representative at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said about 23 million farmers in southern Africa needed urgent help after the drought depleted their resources.

He said the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation expected the effects of the drought in the region to peak between January and March next year.

Purchase said South Africa should collaborate better with its neighbours in future to help them build greater resilience.

“The lack of cooperation is by far the biggest shortcoming in the region,” he said.

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