Southern Africa looks set to dodge latest El Niño bullet
This is mostly good news for the region’s agriculture sector, but the weather event is still taking its toll in parts of South Africa and elsewhere in the world.
El Niño has caused wild weather patterns around the globe. But South Africa and its neighbours seem to have mostly dodged this bullet and the weather phenomenon looks set to fade soon.
The El Niño weather system, caused by a warming of surface waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, typically has global consequences.
The current event, which began in June last year, has not blazed a scorching path across the region as it has in the past. And according to US government and other forecasts, El Niño looks set to fade to neutral conditions as early as April.
Indeed, La Niña – the polar opposite of El Niño, which often brings good rains to this region – looks like it could form by the southern African spring as surface temperatures cool in the eastern Pacific.
One legacy of the recent and prolonged La Niña event was decent moisture levels in South Africa when El Niño set in. And defying concerns that El Niño would once again bare its fangs, the rains have been reasonably good across much of the summer crop area.
The upshot is that South Africa is having a good agricultural season, with the biggest challenges rooted in state failure – shoddy local government services, the power crisis, policy uncertainty over land reform – rather than Mother Nature.
According to the preliminary outlook from South Africa’s crop estimates committee, released on 30 January, farmers have planted 4.41 million hectares for summer grains and oilseeds – a 0.4% increase on the previous season.
“The weather has remained favourable since the start of the season, with widespread rainfall across most regions of [SA]. Thus, we remain optimistic that yields will likely reach the average levels,” the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA (Agbiz) said in a recent note.
Plantings for the staple white maize are up 2% on the previous season, and plantings for yellow maize – mostly used for animal feed – are up by the same percentage.
The US Department of Agriculture has forecast South Africa’s 2023/24 commercial maize production at 15.2 million tonnes. This would be down 7% year on year but is well above the long-term average of 13.6 million tonnes, and is more than enough to meet domestic consumption for this caloric staple.
As Agbiz chief economist Wandile Sihlobo has noted, this and other positive trends point to a slowing of food inflation in South Africa this year. It’s certainly a welcome contrast to previous El Niño events.
In 2016, South Africa’s maize crop was only about 7.8 million tonnes – just over half of the long-term average – because of an El Niño-triggered drought.
There is still fire
Still, South Africa has not escaped this El Niño summer completely unscathed. Farmers on the western edge of the maize belt in North West have had to contend with relatively dry conditions, though not on the scale of the 2015/16 summer of sorrow.
Moisture levels in the western regions of the Northern and Western Cape have been extremely low, a point driven home by the raging fires near Cape Town. And the forecasts for the region are not looking good.
“Current forecasts from various seasonal prediction producers indicate enhanced chances for below-normal rainfall over most areas of the western part of the country,” the South African Weather Service said in its latest seasonal climate watch released on 31 January.
The Weather Service also expects drier conditions for the rest of the summer over most parts of the country, except for some central regions. So the full extent of El Niño’s impact has yet to play out.
Elsewhere in the region, El Niño appears to have been muted. For example, Zimbabwe’s maize production forecasts look better than previously expected.
In 2016, millions of people went hungry in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and other countries in the region as crops wilted beneath a relentless sun.
Some concerns have been raised in The Conversation that Malawi’s maize production could fall 22.5% this season because of El Niño.
That, at least, was the headline. But what the authors found, using econometric modelling, was that “… historically, two out of every three El Niño events have coincided with reduced maize harvests of, on average, 22.5%”.
It’s a possibility that could push millions of people into hunger or even to the brink of starvation, so the situation needs to be monitored carefully.
Malawi’s maize production mostly comes from subsistence farming that relies on rain, making its harvests extremely vulnerable. It’s a far cry from South Africa’s increasingly capital-intensive and hi-tech commercial farming, which has seen yields soar.
But it’s also possible that Malawi may not see a repeat of the misery of 2016, and La Niña may appear in time for its spring planting season.
This El Niño event has taken a toll elsewhere.
The Panama Canal was forced to reduce ship traffic late last year because of a severe drought linked to El Niño, while swathes of Canada have had unseasonably warm winter weather linked to the phenomenon.
East Africa is bracing for torrential rains which often drench the region during El Niño.
El Niño was regarded ominously in South Africa and the wider region because of its historical impacts. Last year was the warmest on record worldwide, and ocean surface temperatures raced to record highs – consequences of human-induced climate change linked to fossil fuel usage.
But no two El Niño events are exactly alike, and the weather pattern has not always reaped a bitter harvest in southern Africa.
One commercial maize farmer in North West province once told this correspondent that he planted as usual during one El Niño several years ago, and he had a bumper crop.
As this El Niño looks set to soon depart from the global weather stage, it may have left the Panama Canal high and dry. But South Africa and, it seems, some of our neighbours, have been spared the worst. DM