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What Have We Learned From The Drought?

Lungelo Shezi looks at how the drought in southern Africa has affected food security, and what lessons we can take into the future.
Image: ©iStock Image: ©iStock

Last year South Africans experienced the most extreme dry weather conditions in recorded history, which brought with them dire consequences for agriculture and the availability of water across the region.

January and February 2016 were the driest since records began. Dams levels around the country hit record lows, and although, at the time of writing, rainfall in the north of the country is at normal or even above-normal levels, vast swathes of the south remain parched – as partly evidenced by the high number of fires in the Western Cape this summer – and restrictions on water usage remain in place, particularly in urban areas, including the metros.

Hundreds of millions were spent by government to distribute water using water tanks in some areas, particularly in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, where taps had completely dried up.

Crop yields feel the pinch

Livestock farmers were among those hardest hit – the number of cows on South African farms declined by 15% between 2013 and 2016.

“Farmers were forced to sell their animals impetuously to abattoirs, or else watch them die helplessly. The slaughter rate went up considerably, compared to the previous years, during October to January 2016. Slaughter rates of 23% for cattle, 37% for sheep and 12% for pigs were reported during this period,” says Hamlet Hlomendlini, a senior economist at AgriSA.

But crop farmers, the backbone of the local agricultural industry, felt the biggest pinch. Non-commercial and commercial maize production, among the biggest in the crop industry, saw a 27% reduction in 2016 from 2015, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

“The steep decline is mainly attributed to the El Niño-related drought conditions that curbed white maize yields by 25 percent compared to the five-year average, while an overall reduction in the area planted also contributed to the smaller harvest,” the FAO said last year.

Cereal production saw a 19% reduction in 2016, while sorghum saw a 30% reduction in production.

Sunflowers, the biggest source of oil used for food, were the only major summer crop not to see a decline.

“Due to lower crop yields, South Africa has, for the first time in many years, become a net importer of maize, and this has negatively affected its agricultural trade balance. Crop enterprises such as maize and sugar, which normally contribute to the sector’s positive trade balance, have shifted to a negative net trade position in 2016,” Hlomendlini adds.

Dire economic consequences

“The drought’s economic impact was also clearly visible, as the profitability, solvency and liquidity position of many farming operations was adversely affected, and, in some instances, farmers were pushed out of the farming business for good,” says Hlomendlini.

According to AgriSA, it is estimated that more than 15 000 farmers (mostly emerging commercial farmers) have surrendered their farms to their financial institutions for auctioning, as they can no longer afford to make their credit and loan repayment.

Farmers’ debt climbed to R125-billion last year, the highest-ever debt recorded against farmers.

The road to recovery

Temperatures are gradually returning to normal, but have farmers managed to recover from the effects of the drought?

“This is a mixed bag; those who were less exposed have already started planting, especially after the recent rainfall, and they are on their way to recovery, especially in the grain industry. But those who were exposed to the full severity of the drought, with no or negligible crops, are the ones who will have a greater struggle to return to normality. The livestock industry will obviously require time to recover, as herds need to be rebuilt,” Hlomendlini says.

AgriSA raised R16-million, donated by people from different organisations and all walks of life to a drought fund, at the end of July 2016, which was distributed among the severely affected farming communities in all nine provinces, to ease the impact.

Around half-a-billion rand in extra support was proposed in the Medium Term Budget Speech given in October.

Lessons and preparing for the future

So what could have been done differently?

“Perhaps the impact of drought on agriculture could have been minimised and many farmers could still be in business had the government responded with the same urgency and aggressiveness as they usually do when state-owned enterprises need to be bailed out,” Hlomendlini suggests.

“Most of the agricultural production in South Africa, especially grain production, and particularly by smallholder farmers, is heavily reliant on rainwater. Perhaps considering the devastating impact this drought has had on the sector, now is the moment that government, business and organised agriculture sit together and start talking about possible ways of expanding the country’s current dams, and maybe consider building new ones to increase water capacity,” he says.

Prof Funso Kutu from North West University’s Department of Agriculture, Science and Technology reckons we’re not out of the woods yet with regard to restoring crops in the country.

“We want to appreciate God for the rains we had late last year and the beginning of this year, especially within the major crop-producing areas. However, we still need to pray for more rain so that any dry spells will not destroy the gains that have been made so far,” Kutu says.

“Many organisations, such as AgriSA, have given projections on yields from the 2016/17 planting season, but the truth is, we need to continue to strive to increase our grain exports.”

Kutu adds that among the lessons that can be learned from the drought and its effects is that farmers, particularly small-scale farmers and those starting out, need more support from government.

“If you look at the number of small-scale farmers in the country, if they are able to increase their productivity, you’ll realise that we’ll be more food-secure than we are now, especially with regard to food security for the poor,” Kutu says.

“Another key lesson to learn should be how we find investments in agriculture to increase productivity and save money and crops for drought periods, especially when we have good rain periods, as reserves for when there are shortages.”


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