The drought gripping the Western Cape shows no sign of abating and threatens to decimate the province’s crucial agricultural sector.
Halfway through the Western Cape’s winter rainy season, rainfall remains disappointingly erratic, dam levels are still critically low and farmers are anxious, with big losses expected.
Agriculture is the backbone of the province’s economy. The Western Cape produces more than 50% of SA’s agricultural exports, with the EU being one of the biggest export destinations. The region also accounts for almost 75% of annual offshore wine sales, worth R5bn.
The drought has already taken a toll on agricultural production. An analysis by economists in the Western Cape department of agriculture found that a 10% reduction in yields as a result of the drought could cost the economy R3.2bn and place 17,000 jobs under threat.
“Our research also shows that a 30% loss of agricultural water in the Western Cape could lead to losses in farm income to the total of R309m,” says provincial economic opportunities MEC Alan Winde.
Apple exports are down 9% and pears 6% on 2016 as a direct result of the drought, says fruit industry body Hortgro.
“We might run into trouble now if it doesn’t start raining soon and a lot‚” Hortgro GM for trade and markets Jacques du Preez says. “The ongoing drought will have a negative knock-on effect on next year’s crop. The degree has yet to be determined‚ but the trees have taken stress.”
The effect of the drought is getting worse and more devastating, says Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri Western Cape, a body that represents farmers.
“Although we are thankful for every drop, the rainfall over the past few weeks had no impact on agriculture in the province. There are no more pastures in the province and roughage hasn’t been available for months in the province. The province has also seen a massive reduction in livestock as the drought continues.”
Willem Symington, Agri Northern Cape’s Disaster Management committee chairman, said Namaqualand, Boesmanland and the Hantam District Municipality are being particularly hard hit by the now two-year-long drought in the area.
Symington, who farms near Loeriesfontein, said the drought, which began in 2014, has escalated significantly, and that farmers’ cash flow is depleted.
Henning Myburgh, Agri Northern Cape CEO, said: “The situation is critical. Livestock is dying at an alarming rate and commercial banks have reached a point where they can’t afford to extend credit facilities. The number of farmers who simply can’t continue as is, is increasing significantly.”
The country’s farmers have contributed somewhat to alleviating the situation.
Myburgh said large donations have been received from, among others, Free State farmers.
The Agricultural Industry Association has asked the public protector and the auditor-general to investigate how millions of rands meant for the relief of farmers.
AgriSA says it will meet with the Auditor-General next week to discuss allegations of mismanagement of drought funds.
The Agricultural Industry Association has asked the Public Protector and the Auditor-General to investigate how millions of rands meant for the relief of farmers affected by last year’s severe drought was underspent by 30%.
The fortunes of South African farmers are improving slightly after two years of hardship caused by one of the worst dry spells on record.
But the food producers are not out of the woods yet, with forecasts of El Niño drought conditions returning.
Agribiz economist Wandile Sihlobo said that although it has been a good year for production, with record farming growth, the Western Cape remained a big source of concern.
First National Bank senior agricultural economist Paul Makube said: “Things are generally starting to pick up. We’re expecting a modest improvement from agriculture that should pick up gross domestic product slightly.”
Western Cape was still in the grip of a dry spell, even though other regions had good rains.
Grain farmers would be harvesting in a month or two and vegetable farmers, with their shorter cycle should be in better shape, Makube said.
Banks were accommodating farmers with their debt, he said. “Arrangements have been made by banks and the situation has not been too bad.”
The South African Weather Service has warned that El Niño conditions could return at the end of 2017.
In Calvinia people had forgotten what rain smells like. The biggest town in the Hantam-Karoo district of the Northern Cape is slowly dying of thirst. Its main water source, the Karee Dam, dried up at the end of last year and the few boreholes left are in dire straits, Oxpeckers reported.
Calvinia is a quaint town with a large farming community, surviving on a wing and a prayer. It is currently South Africa’s driest town, and due to climate change predictions, its future looks bleak.
Water donations from all over South Africa are streaming in, but most of the people know this is only a Band-Aid for the day when the last drop of water flows out of the taps. Water restrictions are severe.
“In my lifetime I have never seen a drought this bad,” said Wilhelmina Opperman, 82, in her small home in Blikkiesdorp, Calvinia’s poorest neighbourhood mostly made up of shanty houses.
“Praise the lord, but He knows that I can’t live without water. The water from the boreholes may be salty and brackish, but I cook with it and I wash with it. I believe that Jesus will provide,” she said.