Rain brings tentative hope of a normal farming season



Some parts of South Africa have received near-normal showers, which has ignited a renewed hope for a normal season for farmers.

Paul Makube, a senior agricultural economist at FNB, said the recent rains in the week ending on October 21 2019, have kept average dam levels in the country above 62% full. But the overall picture shows that dam levels in some parts of the country are below 50% due to little rainfall.

“Slight rains in Mpumalanga still bode well for the season as the planting window has already opened from October 1. The province has received near-normal rainfall during the last three months with September alone being above-normal,” Makube said.

This means well for summer grains and oilseeds as the planting window is from October 1 to November 15 and December 10, for the cold and high temperate regions respectively, Makube said.

While overall data shows that the country has received some rainfall, a closer look in parts of Gauteng and the Eastern Cape shows that other regions in the country have received just drizzle with dam levels dropping to 50% or lower in capacity.

“Although all provinces are currently above 50% full, with the lowest being Limpopo and the Eastern Cape at 51.6% and 50.5% respectively, some critical dams for irrigation such as the Middle-Letaba and Tzaneen are extremely low at 3.3% and 6.8% full and good rains are needed urgently to salvage the situation,” Makube said.

Half of the dams in Limpopo are below 50% full while in the Eastern Cape, 11 dams are at 20% capacity and four are empty.

Makube added that the Eastern Cape’s two major dams, Darlington and Kouga, have decreased further week on week and are at 36.3% and 36.6% respectively.

Gauteng is facing water restrictions due to higher temperatures and the decline in water levels in critical dams.

Makude said water levels in the Vaal dam, a major supplier to Gauteng, dropped to 49.6% from 85.7% last year. This is compounded by the closure of the Lesotho Highlands water tunnel for maintenance until the end of November.

Makube said this period was characterised by below-normal rainfall for the country, but a few isolated areas received near-normal rainfall except over the Free State and Gauteng according to charts from the South African Weather Service.

He said the rest of the country is still waiting for enough rain that would ensure a good crop but also improve pasture conditions for livestock and alleviate pressure on irrigated and dryland fruit and vegetables.

Wandile Sihlobo, economist agriculturist at Agricultural Business Chamber, said that the overall dam levels in the country might be above 50%, but this is not the case on a district level.

“It is dry across South Africa, some dam levels are relatively healthier in some other provinces. But that tells us nothing about what the water levels are.

“The provincial average data tells us very little about what is happening on the ground level within each province,” he said.

Sihlobo said that is because the average provincial rainfall data mirrors what is happening in the province but there are pockets at a district levels within each province that are in dire strain, and there other pockets in some districts relatively in a better position.

He said if it does not rain it will be a problem because South Africa’s agriculture is rain fed and does not rely on irrigation.

“We are worried about the dryness, but it is not yet at critical level in as far as the broader agricultural story because we are hoping there could be rain in the next few weeks based on South African weather services [forecasts]. But, if that does not happen then we have serious problems,” said Sihlobo.

Environmental scientist Simon Gear said there has been heatwave conditions which makes water resources evaporate quickly.

“This is an incredible, unusually hot dry period for this time of the year. In my 20 years of presenting weather, I do not recall the spring [season] to be this hot and dry,” Gear said.

He said there forecasts show that in November till January, there will be below normal rain in the Eastern Cape and above normal rainfall in the central eastern part of the country.

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Tshegofatso Mathe
Tshegofatso Mathe is a financial trainee journalist at the Mail & Guardian

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