Our Burning Planet


As El Niño looms, South Africa – including the southwest – looks set for a wet winter

As El Niño looms, South Africa – including the southwest – looks set for a wet winter
The promenade at Mouille Point on 25 May 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

The latest monthly Seasonal Climate Watch issued by the SA Weather Service now forecasts above-normal rainfall across most of the country. This includes the southwest, which previously was expected to have an unseasonably dry winter.

The monthly Seasonal Climate Watch issued by the SA Weather Service makes tentative five-month predictions and is used, among other things, by farmers and grain traders to forecast planting conditions and price movements. It is never set in stone and is always subject to change — and for the southwest, it has changed for the better.  

“The multimodel rainfall forecast indicates above-normal rainfall for most of the country during winter (Jun-Jul-Aug) through to early spring (Aug-Sep-Oct),” the Seasonal Climate Watch says. “Minimum and maximum temperatures are expected to be mostly above-normal countrywide for the forecast period.”  

Pointedly, the forecast now sees above-average rainfall for the southwest in the winter and for the eastern coastal areas of South Africa during the spring.  

In the previous Seasonal Climate Watch issued in May, it said: “For the next two seasons, mid-winter (Jun-Jul-Aug) and late-winter (Jul-Aug-Sep), there is below-normal rainfall expected for the southwest … As most of the rainfall during winter is expected in the far southwest, the below-normal rainfall conditions in those areas are expected to have a significant impact.”  

This was broadly in line with its outlook in April, so it is good news for a region which had expected to be parched during its typical rainy season.  

“The above-normal rainfall expected for most of the country provides a good opportunity for the recharge of dams and other water reservoirs, particularly in the southwestern and eastern coastal areas of the country during winter and spring, respectively,” the report said.  

“This above-normal rainfall forecast is particularly important for the winter rainfall region, south and south-western parts of the country, which will likely have a positive impact on crop and livestock production.”  

That would include much of South Africa’s winter wheat crop, and South Africa only produces about half of the wheat it consumes and needs to import the rest. With the rand near record lows, a decent wheat crop will be crucial to help contain food price inflation.  

Of course, heavy rains can be both a blessing and a curse. Swathes of the drought-stricken Eastern Cape have been hit by floods in recent weeks as dam levels rose. The SA Weather Service report warned of an increased “risk of flooding in flood-prone areas” in the coming months.  

But overall, wetter-than-usual weather will be welcome ahead of a looming El Niño weather pattern, which Nasa has said is in the process of forming and could well be a scorcher. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Nasa reports early signs of El Niño formation that could herald drought in SA 

“Forecasts indicate … [a] weak El Niño state during late-winter and early-spring and eventually strengthening into a strong El Niño state the next summer season,” the SA Weather Service said, though it cautioned that such forecasts are less accurate at this time of the year than others.  

El Niño typically heralds drought in southern Africa and the 2014 to 2016 event blazed a path of misery across the region. Triggered by a warming of surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, it is the opposite of La Niña, which has brought abundant rain to much, though certainly not all, of South Africa in the past three years. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    All very well to be getting all this lovely rain filling up our dams….it’s just a problem getting it from the dams into our taps without it being polluted on the way! Infrastructure spend to keep us safe and “watered” has sadly been squandered on fast cars, designer clothing, goldbars and second homes in Dubai!

  • David Mark says:

    It’s time to build more capacity for water storage. Cape Town specifically can only last two seasons with low rainfall before a crisis ensues. That’s simply not sufficient.

  • Tim Price says:

    SaWS seem to update their prediction after their previous version is proved wrong…

  • Lesley Young says:

    What a pity that, during those dry years, no attempt was made to remove decades of silt from the dam floors to improve capacity. I’m sure the upriver farms would have loved to get their topsoil back!

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