File picture: Leon Lestrade, Independent Media

Durban - The government was warned of the impending drought and severe water shortages years before they hit the country, but chose to ignore the call to put coping and mitigation strategies into place, weather experts have said.

The drought, the Water Research Commission said yesterday, had been expected in 2013, and the two-year delay should have encouraged the relevant departments and other structures to continue putting plans in place to mitigate the impact.

“It is unfortunate that we have now gone into panic mode when we could have averted the disaster,” said the commission’s research manager, Wandile Nomquphu.

It had been seven years since scientists had predicted that the drought was coming, as the commission’s monitoring mechanisms had forecast that, he said.

He explained that drought was a natural phenomenon that was part of the country’s climate. “It comes and goes, there are cycles of drought and cycles of wet spells which used to come after every eight years or so, but that has changed,” he said.

The frequency, severity and duration of these adverse conditions had changed and these were the subject of research being directed and funded by the commission.

Nomquphu said the last serious drought to hit the country was in 1982 and it lasted for a year and a half.

“It was one of the very worst drought conditions experienced by the country and it has been followed by low-intensity ones which have lasted for about three years between then and now.”

He explained that drought did not homogenously affect everybody, and in the present case had hit only parts of the country, while others remained normal.

Parts of the Northern Cape and parts of Mpumalanga, the North West, the Free State, KwaZulu Natal, which was the hardest hit, and Limpopo bore the current brunt of the ongoing dry conditions.

The drought had been accompanied by extreme heatwaves that had seen parts of the country suffering severe water shortages. The provinces hardest hit had been declared disaster areas while others, like Gauteng, had been affected by intermittent water restrictions meant to ensure water did not run out too fast.

The Water Research Commission held discussions last week about the continuing drought. It also launched a Drought SA portal which would provide a platform for updates and information sharing on the situation. It would also be populated with fresh research and knowledge to empower all who accessed it.

According to Nomquphu, the popular reaction to warnings of impending disastrous weather conditions was that they were alarmist.

“But to panic when it hits us does not help.”

When the drought arrived there was no way to stop it, and if there were no preparations in place, disaster could only be expected.

“We are now in emergency mode and the biggest problem is that we do not know how long this will last,” he said.

The durations that existed between drought periods and wet conditions and the severity were the subject of research.

Nomquphu warned that the tendency to be complacent would rear its ugly head if rains fell.

Water restrictions could become the norm as the situation worsened, he said.

THE MERCURY