Cape Town – Red flags were raised over possible civil unrest in the Western Cape due to the predicted loss of around 50 000 jobs as the drought hammers the province's vital agricultural sector, a joint parliamentary committee sitting heard on Wednesday.
"The impact on the economy is worse for the agricultural [sector] than for the domestic sector," said Graham Paulse, head of department in the province's department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta).
"Regarding food security; you will see that there will be a risk around safety and security, and we are taking that into account," he said.
He said about R40m in agricultural workers' wages had already been lost as farmers cut back drastically on planting and harvesting to save water.
In Ceres, 50% less onions were planted, a tomato puree factory has been closed and workers have been laid off. The deciduous fruit crop is expected to drop by 20%.
Last year the size of the fruit was smaller than usual, leading to around R750m in losses.
5% reduction in wine production
The committees for water and sanitation, agriculture, and Cogta were holding the joint meeting for an update on the drought which has lingered for three years in the province and is showing no sign of ending.
Paulse said two canning factories in Saldanha Bay might have to close because of water shortages, which could lead to between 4 000 to 6 000 job losses.
To preserve water, fruit farmers are pulling flowers off fruit trees so that they will not flower and old vineyards are being ripped out.
Paulse said orders for new vines had been put on hold, as wine farmers remain unsure of whether there will be enough water to sustain them.
There has been a 5% reduction in wine production, leading to R525m in losses in the value chain so far, and some farmers have let their cattle eat off the old vineyards to save on livestock feed.
Compounding the situation for farmers is the culling of around 2.7 million chickens during the avian flu crisis.
Impact on government service delivery
"It implies that there will be social and humanitarian relief needed for those workers that no longer work or have been laid off," said Paulse.
Nurseries and car washes are closing down, and the construction industry, which uses vast amounts of water, is also facing a crisis.
This is likely to impact on the delivery of government buildings, such as new schools, and road repairs.
"This will impact on normal service delivery in the province," he said.
In addition, the drier terrain means that there will be even more fires than usual in the province going forward.
The provincial government has been forced to reprioritise funding from other plans to deal with the water crisis and to prepare for the possibility of "day zero", when there will be no water.
Reduced water use
"We are now going to activate the provincial disaster centre to help us prepare for day zero," he said.
At present Beaufort West has no water in its dam, and is getting water from boreholes.
Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said the department would work with the province and the City of Cape Town to make sure taps do not run dry.
Cogta Minister Des Van Rooyen said there were already moves to change laws to get emergency measures in place faster and he stressed that departmental responses to the crisis must be aligned to avoid overlaps.
The only good news came from City of Cape Town resilience officer Gareth Morgan, who said the city's water use had dropped to 585 million litres per day. This was the lowest yet, since the 1 100 million litres per day recorded in January 2017.
The city has been begging residents to use less water. There has been less winter rainfall than usual and dam levels are currently at just below 40% full. Very little rain is expected before next winter.