CSIR says 2023/2024 El Niño among top five strongest on record

The 2023/2024 El Niño is among the top five strongest on record. Picture Henk Kruger/Independent Newspapers

The 2023/2024 El Niño is among the top five strongest on record. Picture Henk Kruger/Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 22, 2024


The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) says the 2023/2024 El Niño is one of the top five strongest on record, following an assessment of the impact of the phenomenon and other developments in South Africa.

El Niño-related climate – which is characterised by above-average temperatures and below-normal rainfall during the November-April season – is one of the strongest drivers impacting agricultural production in Southern Africa, as about 70% of the region's population depends on rain-fed agriculture for food, income and employment.

In a statement on Friday, the CSIR said the researchers also observed that global sea surface temperatures and global average surface temperatures breached new records and remained alarmingly high.

“In South Africa, the impact of the 2023/2024 El Niño is apparent in the comparison of dam capacity levels at the end of this season, which are around 6% lower than they were at the end of the summer rainfall season in 2023,” it said.

“Additionally, it has been noted that maize and soybean production have decreased by approximately 13% and 23%, respectively, as compared to the previous season.”

In the latest report, the CSIR said the impacts of El Niño were offset by the fact that in preceding years, the country received good rain due to the presence of La Niña (the opposite condition, which enhances rainfall activities over the summer rainfall areas of South Africa).

The CSIR said the ENSO Reference Group (ENSO-RG) – a team of researchers from a range of institutions convened by the ACCESS programme hosted at the CSIR – would continue to monitor the situation and report accordingly.

The group assembled in June last year following the World Meteorological Organisation’s announcement of the official recognition of the 2023/2024 El Niño.

Grain SA agricultural economist Marguerite Pienaar said the El Niño climate can lead to a decrease in the expected production for summer grains and oilseeds, and create quality problems.

Pienaar said the harvest of white maize was down by 11% from the first estimate last month, but down 26% from last year as a result of the impact of El Niño.

“Sufficient stock in the country to satisfy local consumption provided that no (up to negligibly small) white maize is taken into the livestock feed market,” Pienaar said.

“We have 1.15 million tons of white maize available for export. The BLNS countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Swaziland) may have to import more maize due to the drought prevailing there.

“The expectation is that the neighbouring countries might need to import more than the available 1.15m tonnes to satisfy their local consumption.”

With regards to yellow maize, Pienaar said the harvest was also down by 5% from the first estimate last month, but down 12% from last year.

“Yellow maize local consumption is sufficient at this stage, although we already see imports for coastal areas. No deep-sea export programme expected for the season,” she said.

“Only neighbouring countries’ needs can be satisfied with regards to exports. [For] imports, there are already two yellow maize shipments expected to come into the Cape.”

For soyabeans, the harvest was down by 15% from the first estimate last month but down by 34% from last year.

“The expectation is to crush 200 000 tonnes less, which should be replaced with oil cake imports to the coastal areas,” Pienaar said.

“No soybean exports are expected. Quality problems have become evident during the start of the harvest this year.”

With the dam levels said to be 6% lower than last year, Grain SA said some 90% of South Africa’s summer grain production depended on rainfall and not irrigation as only 10% was planted under irrigation.

Grain SA said it would continue to monitor the supply and demand of grains available for local consumption, the animal feed sector as well as exports and imports.