HARD HIT: Sheep graze on land. Western Cape farmers have changed the way they do things as a result of the drought.
If there is one sector that understands both the beauty and brutality of our environment, it is agriculture. The forces of nature, combined with the spread of several diseases, has dealt agricultural stakeholders several big knocks over the past decade. Water scarcity is its latest, and arguably most devastating.

A lot has been said about the agriculture sector’s use of water during this extremely difficult drought period. This drought, the worst the Western Cape has seen in 100 years, is not an “us and them” problem.

It’s an “us” problem because, no matter which way you look at it, we’re in this together.

This drought impacts everyone and all sectors of the economy, but the agricultural sector is the only part of the economy that very early on had its water use officially curtailed. This is also the only sector of the economy which uses its water allocation rights to source financing.

We’ve already seen both small and large players having to renegotiate the terms of their loans at great cost during what is already a troubled time for their businesses. It is anticipated that over the next five years, in certain irrigation areas, up to 98% of farms may show a negative Net Farm Income at some stage.

Farmers irrigating crops from the Western Cape Water Supply System, which is made up of the big six dams, were being restricted to only 40% of their usual allocation. Those farmers irrigating from the Clanwilliam Dam have been restricted to just 17% of their agreed allocation.

The Western Cape is home to 6682 commercial and 9844 smallholder or emerging farmers, all of whom depend on water to remain a part of the economy. The gross value added of agriculture, an indicator of all the goods and services produced by the sector, totals R18.6billion. Export revenue generates R40bn each year. Agricultural production, processing and related sectors sustain 380000 jobs in the province - accounting for about 16% of all people employed in the Western Cape. And because the province produces about half of South Africa’s total agricultural exports, the sector’s importance in the national and provincial economies cannot be overstated.

The province’s top exports in 2016 were refined petroleum products, citrus fruit, wine, apples, pears, quinces and grapes. Only one of these is not an agricultural product.

The sector is cognisant of the important role it plays in the economy and in job creation. Farmers have had to change the way they do things as a result of this drought. They’re having to choose which crops to replant, and in some cases they’re pulling out the ones they can’t water, or simply letting them die. Where possible others are diversifying their crops and using conservation agriculture, a water-savvy growing technique which is beginning to show good results. When comparing wheat harvest yields from our test site at Langgewens, the 2003 (also a drought year) yield was less than 1 ton a hectare. By 2015, this had doubled to 2.1tons a hectare and last year it reached 2.4 tons a hectare.

But these sorts of techniques take time to establish and in the meantime, agriculture is doing all it can to alleviate the short-term crisis by sharing its allocations, and to stave off as many job losses as possible in the sector.

And despite how difficult this period has been for farmers, they’ve also stepped up to help the City of Cape Town ensure supply for its citizens, and for this they need to be thanked. Agriculture is doing all that it can to alleviate the short-term crisis we are all facing by sharing its allocations, and by staving off as many job losses as possible in the sector. In collaboration with the farming community of the Elgin-Grabouw valley, water from private farm dams is being diverted into the City of Cape Town’s supply system, creating an additional 67million litres of water per day.

The impact of the drought and lack of irrigation water available for the sector as a whole remains uncertain as it takes its toll on various crops at various times. This year’s stone fruit harvest, which includes nectarines and peaches, an important export product, was down 20%.

Winter grains such as wheat, canola and barley were badly hit during the winter months while the

drought also prevented planting of certain vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and potatoes in certain areas.

We are shortly due to see its full impact on our pome fruit crops, which includes apples and pears, as well as on grapes. Wine farmers are bracing themselves for the smallest harvest since 2005 as the persistent water shortage has seen smaller grapes, which translates into less juice.

The impact of the drought on agriculture will not just hit farmers in the pocket. Its reach goes much further than that.

A drought of this magnitude will impact on food security and food prices. Residents of our province are already spending a higher percentage of their take-home pay on food, in some instances up to 40%.

Agri-processing is one of the key areas of Project Khulisa, one of my department’s flagship initiatives aimed at driving economic development and creating jobs. The lack of raw product to process is going to hit this sector, too. Already, we’ve seen at least one canning facility close for the current season because of a lack of produce.

At current projections, an estimated 50000 jobs could be lost in the primary agricultural and agri-processing sector. This figure is conservative.

Hardest hit among the agri-workers will be seasonal workers as the harvest season for some crops is likely to be much shorter than before.

Many of these employees are women, whose salaries contribute to the healthcare and education needs of their families. The rural burden on our social assistance programmes is set to increase.

This drought has not discriminated in its impact. Until augmentation schemes come online, and good rains come, all sectors of the economy and all residents of our province need to share and preserve the limited amounts of water we have available to us all. When jobs are lost, it is a fellow resident whose family suffers. We need to do all that we can to save water and to save jobs across all sectors. This drought is not an “us and them” problem, it’s an “us” problem.

* Alan Winde is MEC of Economic Opportunities.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus