Cape Town - The South African agricultural sector is being warned to prepare and plan as the El Niño climate pattern – characterised by drier conditions with less rainfall and warmer weather, which is currently in its neutral phase – is expected to further develop between June and July in South Africa.
El Niño is the warming of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It influences atmospheric circulation and, consequently, rainfall and temperature in specific areas around the world. El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (Enso) phenomena, while La Niña is the cool phase of Enso.
As this El Niño cycle looms in southern Africa, agricultural economists warn that if it is intense, it could bring bleak agricultural conditions.
In the SA Weather Service’s (Saws) latest seasonal Climate Watch for June, it advised that Enso is currently in a neutral state, and forecasts indicate that it will likely move into a weak El Niño state during late winter and earlyspring and eventually strengthening into a strong El Niño state for the remainder of the summer season of 2023/24.
Meteorologist Christien Engelbrecht from Saws’ Climate Department, explained: “A neutral Enso phase occurs when the sea-surface temperature deviation from the average is more than -0.5°C and less than 0.5°C.”
From observational sea-surface temperature data, Engelbrecht said, the sea-surface temperatures over the equatorial Pacific Ocean had become warmer than normal, but was still less than 0.5°C warmer than normal.
“Predictions indicate that the 0.5°C warmer than normal threshold will be exceeded during the May/June/July season and persist into the summer season to the end of the forecast period that is currently the January/February/ March season of 2024.”
Wandile Sihlobo, the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of SA (Agbiz), said South Africa had had four seasons of cooling La Niña-induced heavy rains from 2019/20 to 2022/23 that supported agriculture, leading to higher yields across various field crops, fruits and vegetables. The livestock industry also benefited from improved grazing pasture.
“There is now a shift from a prolonged period of La Niña to El Niño. This weather phenomenon would bring below-normal rainfall and hotter temperatures in South Africa (and across southern Africa),” he said.
If the El Niño is intense, Sihlobo warned this could resemble the bleak agricultural conditions witnessed during the last El Niño drought in the 2015/16 season (before the Day Zero scenario in Cape Town), where staple crops such as maize dropped to 8.2 million tons, well below South Africa’s consumption levels of 11.8 million tons.
“This shortfall necessitated imports of maize to supplement domestic needs. Other field crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock also experienced severe losses,” he said.
However, he doubted things would be this bad, especially as the soil moisture remained reasonably favourable across South Africa following good rains, which should cushion farmers.
Annette Botha, the chief meteorologist at Vox Weather, agreed that as the country shifted through neutral into El Nino, this would have a big and measurable impact on agriculture.
By monitoring in-depth forecasts, farmers in different regions could be better prepared in their planning to deal with extreme weather events.
SA Canegrowers also warned that the agriculture sector must prepare for a possible unprecedented drought in 2024 after a year of record flooding and rainfall, particularly along the country’s eastern seaboard, according to experts.
Thomas Funke, the CEO of SA Canegrowers, said that despite the ruinous flooding and heavy rainfall experienced over much of the country’s sugar cane-growing regions since early in 2022, predictions of a drought in 2024 – expected to exceed the temperatures experienced in the 2014-2019 years – were of grave concern.