For city-dwellers, water restrictions are a sticky, smelly inconvenience. For farmers, the drought is an existential crisis, and many will not make it to next season. The bad news is that we are only just beginning to understand the consequences, and that this week’s rains are not enough to change anything. By SIMON ALLISON.
On Tuesday, it rained in the Suikerbosrand, for the first time since February. “We were very happy. Very, very happy,” said Hannes Geldenhuys, who farms 2500 hectares, spread across several farms in the area. (The Daily Maverick spoke to Geldenhuys and fellow farmers last week).
The jubilation did not last long, however. The heavens may have opened, but they did not open wide enough. “If you see the ground now, it’s only wet down to four centimetres, and then it is dry again,” he said. He explains that if he plants his maize seeds now, they won’t grow properly, as the wind will quickly dry out the soil again. Really, he needs moisture at least 30 centimetres deep for the crop to flourish.
At this time of year, the rolling fields of the Suikerbosrand should be a green, thigh-high carpet of maize and soyabean. Instead, all that is visible is last season’s decaying residue: hectare upon hectare of brittle, yellowing stalks. South Africa is in the midst of its worst drought since 1982, with 2.7m households facing water shortages. The lack of rain has been accompanied by soaring temperatures in many areas, including record highs in Johannesburg (36C) and Pretoria (39.8C). Some cities, including Johannesburg, have implemented water restrictions, drastically reducing the amount of water residents can use on their gardens, and limiting showers to just three minutes.
But South Africa’s farmers are the hardest hit. “If that person is a crop farmer, if it doesn’t rain then he can’t plant. So he must watch the clouds and pray for rain,” said Kosie van Zyl, a senior consultant with Agri SA, a major agricultural association. “Look at our country, we’re actually a semi-desert. If there’s no rain, what can the farmers do? The problem is nature.”
In the Suikerbosrand, Geldenhuys and members of the local farmers union explain how a crop failure will affect their businesses and the wider community. They insist on being quoted collectively – because, they say, they are all dealing with the same problems. They say that without water, there can be no crops. And without crops, there can be no income, which means they will struggle to pay permanent staff, and will not hire any casual labourers – employment the area desperately needs.
The farmers explain how they are struggling to find water and fodder for their cattle, which means that they must sell as many of the herd as possible. This has flooded the market. One local auction house is dealing with three times as many cattle as usual. In the short term, there is a glut of cheap beef, but in the long term South Africa will be dealing with a severe meat shortage. Meanwhile, dairy cows are producing four litres less than usual. Milk is about 87% water, after all.
They are most worried, however, about the broader consequence for South Africa if the country has to deal with a nationwide food shortage. They are not the only ones. “When the maize crop goes down, the circumstances for social unrest go up … This is exactly how the Arab spring in the Middle East started,” said Louis Meintjes, president of the Transvaal Agriculture Union.
While Meintjes may be getting ahead of himself, one consequence is that food prices have already been hiked, with further dramatic increases to come as more food must be imported. Agri SA’s latest figures show a 14% increase in the past year in the cost of maize meal, a staple, while bread has risen 7%. Eggs are up by 15%, and chicken by 4%.
These figures highlight the pressure that South Africa’s farmers are already under. The maize industry is dealing with a R12bn ($84m) loss in revenue, while sugar is down two billion rand. Many farms will not survive.
Thabi Nkosi, Agri SA’s senior economist, said that big commercial farms are better equipped to deal with the economic headwinds, because they will have built up a financial cushion. “What we are most afraid of is new entrants who will not have built up those reserves. As the drought continues, it will get harder and harder. We’re talking about a big group of subsistence farmers, maybe selling informally, but they’re vulnerable because they would not have built up a reserve. We’re very worried about them.”
In South Africa’s unique, race-conscious lexicon, it is impossible to miss Nkosi’s meaning. She is saying that, overwhelmingly, it is black farmers who will be the first to suffer: almost all subsistence farmers in South Africa are black, as are most new entrants, many enticed by the government’s land redistribution policy. Nkosi concurs with the argument that this drought could set back the progress of land redistribution in South Africa, already perceived to be going too slowly.
In a bid to help those most in need, agriculture minister, Senzeni Zokwana, announced a special R220m fund to provide cattle feed for subsistence farmers. “We feel their pain,” he said. No details on how or when the fund will be disbursed have been made public.
For the Suikerbosrand farmers, however, such measures are too little, too late. “There are no subsidies here. Those American and European farmers can survive through anything. All we can do is pray and believe.”
Even if, by some miracle, enough rain does come in time to salvage this planting season, South Africa’s farmers would do well to carry on praying, because experts say this will not be the last dry spell.
“The severity of the water shortages that we are experiencing is a result of a very strong El Niño. The relative intensity of this El Niño is certainly related to climate change,” said Professor Mary Scholes, a climate change specialist at the University of the Witwatersrand. “Increased temperatures will reduce rainfall in many cases, and the evaporation rate of the water we do receive will be much higher, and so the usability and accessibility of that water will be more difficult.”
For Mike Muller, a former director-general of the Department of Water Affairs, there is a long-term solution, besides prayer – but it lies outside the country. “We need to be taking more advantage of the fact that when it’s dry here, it tends be wet in northern Zambia, Angola and Mozambique,” he said.
“We could all be more resilient if we weren’t reliant on one climate zone. The big strategic goal is far more cooperation through the region, and we’re not seeing that. We need to see agriculture happening in places which are more sensible, with more irrigation potential.” DM
Photo: A dead cow lies on the banks of the dried up Black Umfolozi river, Ulundi, Nothern Kwazulu Natal, South Africa 09 November 2015. The river is amongst several in the area that has dried up. Locals farmers are looking at the option of selling some of their livestock, as fear grows, that they might loose them to the draught. The worst drought in ten years is taking grip of most of the northern part of South Africa. Major rains are only expected early 2016. EPA/SHIRAAZ MOHAMED.