Farmer Ryan Matthews surveys dried mealie plants in a field affected by drought, in Lichtenburg, North West Province. The worst drought since 1992 in South Africa, the continents biggest maize producer and traditional supplier of its neighbours, has damaged plants. A 32 percent drop in this years harvest is predicted  the worst in eight years. Photo: Waldo Swiegers

Durban - The looming shortage of grain in South Africa due to the ongoing drought would have a severe impact on the poor, and the price of many foodstuffs was likely to increase significantly, said economist Dawie Roodt

Maize and wheat crops are significantly smaller than usual this year because last year’s drought conditions have not been alleviated by a return to normal rainfall patterns this year. In KwaZulu-Natal, the sugar industry and others have been hit hard.

“I am not concerned by the shortage of grains in South Africa as such, because there is a global surplus and the US is a very good producer of grain for export,” said Roodt.

“What is of concern is that we will have to import grain with a weak rand, which will drive the price of food up considerably. This is true of grain because so many foodstuffs include it, and chicken and meat are no exception.

“Food plays a hugely important role in the overall spend of the poorer people in our country, and while everyone will pay more, the poor will suffer worst. Most of their expendable income is spent on keeping food on the table.”

Roodt said that crop failures in neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, which is also suffering a drought, “may have the effect of driving more people to seek employment in South Africa than before”.

The economist said South Africa was of enormous importance to the southern African region as far as grain was concerned.

“Traditionally, we have supplied a significant maize surplus, and maize is the staple foodstuff of most southern African people.

“Our politicians don’t seem to fully understand this, but South African maize farmers, in particular, do a spectacular job, given the fact that they farm in less than ideal conditions. They are highly effective and technologically advanced, but one cannot mitigate the effects of low rainfall.”

Mike Black, president of the KwaZulu-Natal agricultural union, Kwanalu, said that estimates for the national maize and wheat crops “are being revised downwards each time they are reviewed, so concerns that we may be headed for food shortages are well founded. If we have to import maize then this would increase costs to the consumer.

“All farming sectors are affected but the full impact will only be felt at the end of winter, depending on whether any rain falls during the normally dry winter months.

“As has already been reported, the cane growing sector is in dire straits. Farmers over an extensive area reported slow growth of natural grazing through summer and some are already reporting that normally perennial streams used for stock watering are drying up.

“The water table is low. River levels are below normal and many farm dams used for irrigation did not fill during summer. This will impact on those sectors that rely on irrigation, such as dairy and fresh vegetables.

“Yields on conserved feed, such as maize for silage and hay, were severely depressed in many areas. There is no doubt that a difficult four or five months lie ahead.

“Intensive sectors such as pork, poultry, feed lotting and dairy will be negatively affected by the increased maize prices.”

Black said that some funds had been allocated for relief in drought stricken areas of the province that were earlier declared disaster areas.

“These are way below what would be needed, and there is also no clarity on how and when they will be distributed.

“I am not sure it should be our role to assist drought stricken neighbouring countries if we have insufficient for our own requirements. It probably becomes a commercial decision for farmers in the north of the country who have product available to sell.”

Shami Harichunder, spokesman for Umgeni Water, said levels in parts of the province continued to be critical.

“The level in the Hazelmere Dam is still on the decline and has not recovered due to low summer rainfall. It is currently standing at just 33.8 percent. In a normal year it should be around the 60 percent mark at this time of year. It is not a good situation.

“In fact, it could be said to be chronic at present. It is difficult to say whether we will get any late rains. We have sufficient water for the next 120 days. We are hoping this will take us into the spring rain period, and that we will be able to weather the crisis.

“Restrictions will have to be tightened as things currently stand, and a decision as to what form the increased restrictions will take, will be made in the next month.

“The Umgeni River has adequate water supply so the position for Durban, Pietermaritzburg and part of Ugu is fairly healthy.

“However, it is extremely important that people are aware the water position in the Umgeni could very well worsen. We are asking all users to conserve this precious and finite resource.

“Climate change is a reality and we are seeing its effects locally in terms of reduced annual rainfall and drought conditions, alternating with floods in other areas.

“The rainfall we have received in the past two seasons is well below our annual average and cannot be ignored as a sign of things to come.”

Sunday Tribune