Mini El Niño grips SA

South Africa is in the grip of the worst drought in recent history, with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry declaring that the lack of rain and falling dam levels are more acute now than they were during the droughts of 10 and 20 years ago.

Recent downpours in parts of Gauteng, the Free State and North West have not had much impact.

‘People think the rain is helping,” said water affairs spokesperson Themba Khumalo. ‘But we will need three weeks of ongoing and sustained rain to break this drought.”

Worst hit is the Western Cape.
However, this week conditions in KwaZulu-Natal prompted the Ethekwini Metropolitan Council to debate whether to introduce water restrictions in Durban.

Municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe said it was decided not to implement restrictions now, but that the situation was still critical and would be revisited next month.

In Gauteng, the Vaal dam has fallen from 50% full last Christmas to 29% now. The national, provincial and municipal water authorities will meet in February to decide on whether province-wide action is needed.

The maize industry is cushioned to some extent by the fact that there is a three-million-tonne surplus as a result of falling demand for grain in the region.

However, the Western Cape wheat industry has already sustained major losses, according to Sanitha Groenewald of the National Department of Agriculture. She could not give figures.

‘A big concern at this stage is that the speed at which dam levels are falling seems higher than during the 1980s and 1990s droughts,” Khumalo said.

Barbara Schreiner, the department’s acting director general, said the country’s dams were on average lower — at about 58% of capacity — than they were three years ago. She said dry spells had historically lasted for about seven years every decade in South Africa, and that the country was in the third year of a seven-year drought cycle. 

Farmers and their representatives agree. Grain SA chief Bully Botma said dam volumes were a big worry.

‘It is very dry — it is very difficult out there,” he said.

Khumalo said groundwater reserves were in natural decline, and that local authorities in the Northern Cape and Free State that relied on groundwater were experiencing serious problems.

The South African Weather Service has forecast a dry summer, citing the ‘weak El Niño system” that has hit the country. 

In Cape Town restrictions have been in place for three months. Durban and Pietermaritzburg are also struggling. Sutcliffe said recent rains had prevented dam levels from dropping further. ‘But dam levels have not picked up, either. We are still calling on the public to be very careful with water.”

Dam levels in the Free State are the lowest in the country. The Allemans kraal and Krugersdrif dams levels have dwindled to below 10% and the Erfenis, Bloemhof and Kalkfontein dams are well below 20%. The Koppies dam was only 6% full compared with 28% at the same time last year.

Limpopo still has not recovered from last year’s devastating dry spell, though dam levels have risen. The Tzaneen dam is 34,3% full compared with 24,5% at the same time last year, while the Albasini dam in the Soutpansberg is 59,1% full compared with 45,1% last year. However, Khumalo said that groundwater, on which many communities depend, remains a major problem.

Water restrictions were imposed in Limpopo’s Modimolle (Nylstroom) municipal area after boreholes began drying up.

The Polokwane and Thabazimbi councils have also asked residents to use water sparingly.

Tough but not yet terminal

Drought is making life very difficult for producers of South Africa’s staple food, maize — but the current grain surplus means food security is not yet under threat, writes Yolandi Groenewald.

Bully Botma, chairperson of Grain SA, said there was a carry-over maize stock of more than three million tonnes. Zambia had produced a good crop this year, taking some of the export strain off South Africa. South Africa had also had a good harvest last year after late rains saved the day.

Farmers could meet demand if there was enough rainfall during the crucial months of January and February, Botma said. But poor rains during that period might necessitate the importation of maize.

The agriculture department’s national Crop Estimates Committee estimated at the end of November that commercial farmers would plant 2,8 million hectares of maize with a yield of 9,5 million tonnes this season. However, committee spokesperson Rona Beukes said that the crop might be smaller than the November estimate.

‘Farmers are planning to plant fewer crops then usual as a result of the drought,” Botma said. ‘Our committee is probably a bit optimistic in its outlook.”

Botma estimated that about 60% of summer crop farmers had planted already. Many were based in Mpumalanga, which had so far had good summer rains. However, the province produces a quarter of South Africa’s summer crops.

The majority of farmers in central South Africa, the major supplier of the country’s maize, had not been able to sow at the optimal period.

North West normally delivers about 32% of the national maize crop. However, Botma said that, as things stood, it would be impossible for farmers to deliver their normal quota.

The north-western Free State is also struggling, with only 5% of the planned crops sown during mid-November, the optimal planting period.

The Free State delivers about 38% of South Africa’s maize crop.

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