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Thohoyandou - The worst drought since 1983 has struck north-eastern Limpopo, killing more than 2 000 cattle and threatening to push the price of red meat to unprecedented levels.
Now the future of subsistence farmers is at risk, while thousands of impoverished villagers have been left without drinking water.
Caused by severe heatwaves, the drought has ravaged parts of the Vhembe and Mopani districts along the edge of the Kruger National Park since October, according to residents, local farmers and government officials.
The Emergent Red Meat Producers Association of Limpopo says it expects the loss of cattle in the far north to drive emerging red meat producers out of the market and push up the price of red meat.
The region accounts for the majority of cattle farmers in the province.
“It is discouraging for aspirant meat producers as they don’t have resources to enter the industry because their cattle have died,” said Tshineo Mathidi, the association’s Limpopo president.
The drought has forced the poverty-stricken communities in the area to spend their last money on drinking water.
The Department of Water Affairs’s Limpopo director, Alson Matukane, and the spokesman for the Limpopo Department of Agriculture, Kenny Mathivha, confirmed the drought and its devastating impact.
With the precious commodity evaporating from the Nsami and the Middle Letaba dams – the main sources of drinking water for the locals – Matukane predicted disaster unless the heavens opened up in the next two months.
Middle Letaba is 0.5 percent full, while the Nsami Dam in Mopani stands at 15 percent.
“The drought is biting very badly. If it does not rain between now and March we will be in for extreme disaster,” said Matukane.
The Star visited three of the hardest-hit villages last week. At Makuleke, near Thohoyandou, about 200km north-east of Polokwane, locals such as Lillian Mtileni are forced to pay for clean water, or share dirty water from the wells with animals – amid carcasses.
Makuleke alone accounted for 900 of the 2 000 cattle lost, according to Sakkie Chauke, a local farmer who has lost 25 of his 41 cattle.
Like many in the village, Chauke relies on his cattle as his family’s only source of income, selling them to buy food and get money to educate his children.
“It is very tough, and the battle is huge, cattle are dying everywhere,” he said, looking at a carcass.
“We try to feed them but they still die. Those that run to water ditches die because they are trapped in the mud.”
Chauke’s neighbour, Elvis Mashamba, has lost 26 cattle.
“It is painful to see your property go like this, we just hope the drought won’t finish off the remaining ones,” said Mashamba.
Stanford Marhanela lost 40 cattle out of 85. “We are doing everything we can to save them from hunger, we have already spent more money buying booster and feeds,” he said.
Local livestock owners say they have been forced to sell their cattle to commercial farmers at less than 10 percent of their original value.
They described the drought as the worst since 1983.
Some say they accepted offers of R500 for cattle that used to be worth R9 000.
Four out of five local families financed their children’s education from money earned out of selling cattle, according Shadrack Phuravhathu, the spokesman for the Manenzhe Tribal Council.
As a result, affected families went as far as buying cabbages to feed collapsing cattle.
“We don’t have any choice but to make sure that we try to save the remaining ones. If we don’t there will be hunger among us too. Most of us are unemployed, so livestock is the only source of income,” said Phuravhathu.
“Although we are slowly losing hope, we will try our best,” he says.
Some livestock owners resorted to harvesting grass and collecting tree leaves to feed their cattle rather than lose them.
Some desperate cattle owners harvested grass along the Pafuri Road leading to the Kruger National Park.
The Star also spotted a group of men at Madifha, east of Thohoyandou, climbing trees to cut down leaves to feed their cattle.
Describing the heatwave and drought as a disaster, Mathivha said millions of rand worth of damage had been caused to fruit and vegetable crops.
“We are battling to survive, without water for drinking; now we are battling with water for irrigation.
“We were trying to pick up, because last year farmers were hit harder by frost,” said Mathivha, adding that the drought had affected farmers’ attempts to catch up on production.
He said that while the department understood the effect of drought, it was impossible to provide enough help to affected farmers.
After the 2001 drought, he said, farmers received R20 million in aid, and this was still being dealt with.
Mathivha said some cattle owners had ignored calls to reduce their livestock.
“If you have 300, cut down, sell and remain at least with 200.”
He said another problem was that the department gets drought relief funds only after the actual disaster, making it difficult to address the problem as it unfolded.
Professor Edward Nesamvuni of the Centre for Rural Community Studies at the University of Limpopo expects drought conditions to continue crippling community livestock because the government had prioritised residential areas over grazing land.
“This is because there is competing land use, which was not regulated by national government and district and local municipalities.”
He said the absence of by-laws in rural communities had compounded the problem, as there was a lack of clear plans to reduce livestock in risky areas.