As South Africa enters its third year of severe drought conditions, the most extreme in South Africa since the start of the 20th century, agricultural production and security of domestic food supplies are at risk.
The agricultural sector’s contribution to the national GDP is an estimated 11 percent (horticulture accounts for 26 percent of the sector), and the industry’s influence on the upstream and downstream sectors of the economy cannot be overlooked.
Immediate impacts of the drought
Production estimates are down, and the lack of rainfall is forcing fruit producers to spend more. In the case of citrus, where South Africa is a significant producer and exporter, crop estimates for the 2015-2016 season were confirmed and released by the Citrus Growers’ Association. Production for 2016 is estimated to decline by 7.5 million cartons compared with the previous season.
According to an article published by SABC in March 2016, current drought conditions are of concern to farmers in the Witzenberg Valley area, which is usually rich in deciduous fruit and winter rain. Many, like Calla du Toit, are praying for excessive rain to fall. Du Toit says, "We hoped for good rainfall but there was not much. A lot of the orchards have not been irrigated optimally and we could see the effects of that in the fruit size. In some¬ of the orchards, 50 percent of the fruit will not make export standards or pecking standards, most of it will go to juice."
The lack of rainfall is starting to take its toll; forcing fruit producers to spend more. This may lead to negative effects on consumer's pockets. According to du Toit, ''Normally we have dams that are 60 percent and 70 percent full this time of the year. So it has major effect as we pay a lot of attention to irrigation management and we have spent more than half million rand on additional irrigation systems to help the fruit.''
An increase in prices is to be expected as Jacques du Preez from deciduous fruit company, Hortgro, says, “you can probably expect an increase in prices. We are a global player so we compete with other hemisphere countries for the northern hemisphere markets. So the less fruit there is in the southern hemisphere, you can expect that the prices will increase.''
Rising food prices are affecting South African consumers
The South African consumer continues to face inflation, and the rise in food prices is exacerbated by the weaker rand as the price of imported commodities increase. It is inevitable that food scarcity, as a result of these drought conditions, will drive consumer prices higher. This is highlighted again in the case of citrus. See the chart below. After the start of the 2015-2016 harvesting season (March 2015), the price of oranges went into decline until the end of July 2015, after which the price started to recover, indicating a decline in the supply of oranges. In May 2016, the price of oranges was registered at R3 405 per ton, compared to R2 300 per ton in May 2015. This can be mainly attributed to the decline in supply to the local market from 17,000 tons in May 2015 to 13,000 tons in May 2016 (DAFF 2016).
Government and industry need to identify longer- term solutions as climatic conditions could become increasingly unstable for South Africa
South Africa’s administration recognizes this drought has long term implications. “There are significant difficulties from this drought,” said Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of the National Water Commission, a research and science agency in Pretoria. “The drought cannot be managed the way previous droughts have been managed. In previous droughts we hadn’t factored in climate change. We are convinced that this drought is not part of a normal drought cycle that we’ve had in the past. This one is quite different. So we regard this as a drought in the climate change scenario, and our planning is working around that.
Some of the longer-term strategies being explored to help farmers include:
- Support from the government for farmers with production and labour subsidies in order to keep them on the land.
- Improving irrigation infrastructure to ensure increased production and sustainability. In South Africa, agriculture uses almost 60 percent of available water.
- Exploring crop insurance programmes that can act as safeguards for producers in the future.
Additionally, South Africa could consider identifying alternative crops. South Africa expends resources producing field crops such as maize, which other African countries may be better suited to produce more efficiently. South Africa could import this crop, expanding resources to produce more high-value fruit exports.