Heroes Day no longer the start of the planting season with a rapidly shifting climate

A woman gets water from a well dug in the Black Imfolozi River bed, which is dry due to drought, near Ulundi, northeast of Durban. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

A woman gets water from a well dug in the Black Imfolozi River bed, which is dry due to drought, near Ulundi, northeast of Durban. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

It has always rained by Heroes Day – the October 10 holiday that falls on Paul Kruger’s birthday. That certainty guided farmers. It meant the dry soil of winter softened and allowed seeds to spring forth into life.
The temperature had to remain between 19°C and 32°C for the next five months.

The maize crop is the cornerstone of South Africa’s food security. About 11-million tonnes need to come out of every March harvest for people and animals to have enough food to make it through winter and the next planting season.

The bumper crop of 2014 – when 14-million tonnes of maize were harvested – meant the country continued its tradition of being a net exporter of staple foods. Good rains and warm weather over Christmas 2013 were to thank for this.

But then it stopped raining. October 10 2014 was dry. The first national drought in two decades, and the worst since the 1980s, baked the earth and evaporated moisture from dams. The 2015 harvest dropped to 9.9-million tonnes.

October 10 2015 also passed without rain. El Niño and the Subtropical Indian Ocean Dipole phenomena, which cause drought in the region, intensified what is normally a two-year drought cycle. The Western Cape town of Vredendal set the world record for October, with a temperature of 48.4°C. Records tumbled globally and 2015 ended up being the hottest year in recorded history. At this point, water utilities such as Rand Water and municipalities started implementing serious water restrictions. For many it was too late; towns such as Kroonstad ran out of water.

Some farmers planted in areas where late winter cold fronts had brought rain. Others waited until the few days of heavy rain fell at the end of 2015 to push seeds into the soil. But that soil was often so hot it cooked seeds. The maize that did survive started a 140-day race to grow before the winter frost of 2016 froze its leaves.

The maize farmers’ desperate optimism was not an option for livestock farmers. Without spring rains and faced with no feed, thousands of farmers started selling their cattle and sheep. Auction houses reported bumper sales. But many held on to their livestock with terrible consequences. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) says 600 000 cattle and sheep have died, most from thirst and starvation, but veld fires also took their toll.

Official yields for South Africa’s commercial maize crop – released by the Crop Estimates Committee – were put at 7.7-million tonnes for the year ending July. Subsistence farmers were worst hit. The committee said this crop had dropped from 442 000 tonnes to 286 000 tonnes nationally. Nearly two-thirds of those farmers grow crops in the Eastern Cape. Without that harvest, people have had to rely on store-bought food. Statistics SA says grain mill and starch products have increased in price by some 20% in the past year.

A handful of megadams are the only thing that have kept the livestock and agricultural sector alive. Most of these are fed by the rain that falls on Lesotho’s 3 000m mountains. But even Lesotho has dried up.

Drastic solutions have been proposed. The water and sanitation department dusted off a hitherto prohibitively expensive plan to build desalination plants to provide water for coastal cities. Local municipalities urged anyone with the funds to do so to drill boreholes. Agri SA proposed a government subsidy of R1 000 per farmworker per month, to ensure the sector’s 850 000 workers could remain employed until the March 2017 harvest. This would be part of a R16.6-billion fund to subsidise farmers (who could then import grain to feed livestock) and give loan guarantees to now insolvent farmers. This would get the sector through the drought and help it back on to its feet by 2019.

But the government does not have that money. The Contingency Fund – a kitty for dealing with disasters – was emptied in the 2015 financial year to pay for a public sector wage hike. But eight of the nine provinces have declared disasters.

Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have also declared drought disasters. SADC has asked for $2.7-billion in aid but received a fraction of that (international humanitarian aid is focused on the crisis in Syria). The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Agency says 23-million people in the region need immediate help so that they can plant if the rains fall in October. Without this, they will need food donations to make it until the 2018 crop matures.

This means September and October are critical. The latter is known by farmers as the “killing month”, because this is when cattle start dying if the rain is delayed. It has been delayed for two years. Weather SA says the rains should return, because El Niño has faded. But its demise is normally followed by La Niña and that generally means floods in the southern hemisphere.

Even this scenario is not certain. The weather service says in its latest bulletin that: “There is a large amount of uncertainty towards which direction rainfall may take in the coming seasons.”

With a rapidly changing climate, the predictable rains of Heroes Day are a thing of the past. Maize does not do unpredictable.

Sipho Kings

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