As the deepening energy crisis continues to present problems for different parts of the agricultural sector, another major challenge looms — a change in weather conditions from favourable rains to drier, hotter conditions. This would be the outcome if there is a switch from the prolonged period of the La Niña weather phenomenon to El Niño.

SA has had a good four seasons of La Niña-induced above-average rains from 2019/2020 to 2022/2023. These supported agriculture, leading to higher yields across various field crops, fruits, and vegetables. The livestock industry also benefited from improved grazing pasture.

Having four consecutive La Niña seasons was unusual. The typical cycle is two seasons of higher rainfall followed by normal to drier seasons. Excluding the current trend, the only other similar period in the recent past ran through 2007/2008, 2008/2009, and 2009/2010 production seasons.

Scientists at the International Research Institute for Climate & Society at Columbia University now warn of the likelihood of El Niño kicking in later this year. In its update of January 19 the institute stated that “the likelihood of El Niño remains low through May-July 2023 (44% chance), but becomes the dominant category after that with probabilities in the 53%-57% range”.

Such a weather phenomenon would bring below-normal rainfall and hotter temperatures in SA. This could resemble the bleak agricultural conditions witnessed during the most recent El Niño drought, in the 2015/2016 season, when the harvest of maize, a staple crop, dropped to 8.2-million tonnes, well below SA’s annual consumption level of 11.8-million tonnes. This shortfall necessitated imports of maize to supplement domestic needs.

Other field crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock also experienced severe losses. But if the El Niño is mild, crop declines could resemble the 2018-2019 episodes, in which the reduction in staple crops such as maize was not as aggressive. The total maize harvest that year was 11.8-million tonnes, in line with annual consumption. By comparison, in the past three seasons (excluding 2022/2023), SA’s maize harvest averaged 16.8-million tonnes and ensured that the country remained a net exporter of maize.

SA agriculture is mainly rain-fed, particularly field crops. Only about 20% of maize, 15% of soya bean, 34% of sugar cane and nearly half of wheat production is produced under irrigation. During droughts much of agriculture thus comes under immediate pressure.

In the case of fruit and vegetables, a sizeable area relies on irrigation. In the livestock sector, specifically dairy, irrigation is just as necessary. While the effect of lower rainfall is not as immediate, prolonged drought presents big risks to SA’s food security.

Even more worrying is that the agricultural regions that irrigate face continuous interruptions due to load-shedding. Organised agriculture and the department of agriculture, land reform & rural development are working on near- and long-term interventions to assist the sector.

One option that should receive serious consideration is incentives for self-generation, even if only covering a few critical parts of each business. The window for this option is limited, about eight months before we see the potential intensification of El Niño. But for regions that already irrigate, reducing load-shedding is the only option as farmers are seeing losses daily. The same extends to livestock, aquaculture (mainly abalone farms), dairy and poultry businesses, as well as various food, fibre and beverages value chain businesses.

The challenge of El Niño-induced drought will not be limited to SA but will be felt across Southern Africa. The last intense drought cycles led to increased food insecurity in the region. This is a particular risk if the upcoming summer season is dominated by drought.

Policymakers in the region should be aware of this creeping challenge and plan accordingly to support communities that heavily rely on agriculture.

Written for and first published on the Business Day.

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