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Though the agri sector welcomes heavy rains, economist warns of El Niño state

The Berg River in Moorreesburg after heavy rain in the area. Picture: Gary van Wyk

The Berg River in Moorreesburg after heavy rain in the area. Picture: Gary van Wyk

Published Jun 17, 2023


Even though agricultural organisations have welcomed the heavy rains experienced in the Western Cape, one farmer said he was worried that too much rain may cause destruction.

Agri economist Wandile Sihlobo has cautioned that South Africa is likely to enter an El Niño (ENSO) state in the upcoming summer of 2023–2024.

Sihlobo, chief agri economist at Agbiz, said, however, that the intensity of the El Niño, its duration, and its impact on crop production remain uncertain.

“Still, South Africa can be expected to have a smaller harvest compared with the past four years of consecutive ample harvests of field crops and horticulture. A critical factor to note is that the expected El Niño comes after four straight seasons of solid rainfall and good soil moisture,” said Sihlobo.

He said in the event of a weak El Niño state, the current soil moisture conditions could support crop conditions and ensure another reasonably decent harvest, as in 2018/19, which was also an El Niño period. Notably, the season before 2018/19 was not even as favourably wet as the past four seasons.

“We will have a much better view of the expected El Niño intensity in two to three months, which will also be closer to the summer crop planting. This past week, the South African Weather Service (SAWS) noted that ENSO predictions during this time are less skilful than other times of the year and that the forecasts be monitored until we reach August/September when ENSO forecasts have significantly higher skill levels,” said Sihlobo.

Sihlobo said, on the positive side, with all the fears about the prospects of the upcoming drought, the winter crop-growing regions across the country have received reasonably good moisture, which will support the crop.

“As the winter season continues, there is likely to be additional rainfall in the Western Cape and coastal regions, all of which will support winter crops, wine grapes, and various horticulture,” he said.

Jannie Strydom, CEO of Agri Western Cape, said despite some damage and issues reported, they are positive about the good rainfall of late.

“It is great to see the larger Western Cape storage dam levels rising as dam levels at the start of this year’s winter rainy season were much lower than the same time last year. The latest figures available to us show that dam levels are now higher than last year. The feedback from producers across the province is mostly positive, with a feeling of gratitude, especially from regions that have suffered from severe drought for a long time,” said Strydom.

Andrea Campher, Risk & Disaster manager, Agri SA Disaster Relief Foundation, said the above-average rain is largely welcomed in parts of the Cape provinces that are affected by the cold front.

“While there are still districts in these provinces that are suffering from severe droughts, the rain brings welcome relief to many farmers and fields that need to be restored. There are currently challenges where planting time is hampered by drenched fields in the Western Cape, but the rain still brings relief to storage ponds and other water sources. We hope that these rains will result in bumper crops for the majority of farmers, and that underground aquifers are restored for future drought occurrences.”

Farmer Elton Jephtas said the rain has come as a “perfect storm” with both positives and negatives, as they are yet to count the effects of it.

“We are happy for the rain following all the challenges that we faced in the farming sector, such as droughts, economic fluctuations, and load shedding, which have impacted the sector. However, we are struggling to balance the effects of the rain, as too much of it leaves us in distress and damages our crops. On my farm, there have been several damages caused by the rain, and I am afraid if it continues to rain too much, we will see the complete destruction of the plantation. However, we also welcome the rising dam levels, which haven’t been full for some time now, and this is good for us. At this stage, all we can do is minimise the damages and hope for the best. It is too early for us now to count the effects, and we will assess the effects of it in the upcoming days,” said Jephtas.