SENEKAL, South Africa (AlertNet) - The dun maize fields at Vusi Mlozi’s farm in Sopisfonteng, in South Africa’s Senekal district, offer a possible warning about the future of agriculture in the country.
Spread over a vast 30 hectares, the farm is baked by a scorching sun and starved of water, the plants parched and nearly dead. A severe drought in central South African has rendered reservoirs temporarily unusable, devastated farm fields and made drinking water scarce.
A combination of excessive heat and high winds also has sent wildfires scorching through millions of acres of farmland. And this is just the latest example of the kinds of extreme weather that Senekal has been experiencing in the past few years.
“This year things have been hard for us,” Mlozi said. “We had long dry periods, scorching heat and very high temperatures, floods and the recently snowy conditions. Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season and this has shaved several percentage points off our potential yields.”
As the effects of climate change make weather patterns harsher and more unpredictable, South Africa’s farmers are struggling to cope. While some parts of the country are regularly ravaged by floods, others suffer through long droughts or unseasonable cold snaps.
Lacking the necessary knowledge and technical skills, farmers are struggling to adapt. And with scientists predicting that temperatures may rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius in the next 90 years, farmers fear their troubles will only get worse.
In the remote eastern edge of South Africa’s Free State province and in the Western Cape, farmers are enduring the region’s longest drought on record, one that has lasted most of the past four years.
Peter Gent, the owner of Parkwood Dairy in George, in the Western Cape, said rainfall is at a fraction of its usual levels.
“Temperatures have exceeded their normal highs in many places,” he said, and flooding has increased humidity levels. That has brought worsening pest and disease problems – more threats from which farmers have had to fight to save their crops.
SOARING HAY PRICES
Gent says the drought has caused hay prices to soar, benefiting farmers to the north who have been receiving rains and are able to produce hay to sell at higher prices.
But many dairy and beef farmers in his region have had to make a difficult choice between feeding their cattle or reducing the size of their herds.
Farmers in the southern town of Knysna, which has been experiencing drought conditions since 2008, have had to pay inflated prices for hay and then pay again to have it trucked hundreds of kilometres to their farms, he said.
Their only other options are to sell some of their cattle or move them to rented pastures in other states.
"It's pretty ugly," said Gent, who has more than 400 grass-fed dairy cows on his farm.
It could get uglier. Recent studies at the University of Cape Town predict that temperatures will increase over the whole of South Africa due to climate change.
According to Peter Johnson, an applied climatologist with the university, January temperatures are expected to increase by 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius in the central and Northern Cape areas of South Africa, and by 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius along the coast.
“Coastal areas may also be affected by rising sea levels and intrusion of salt water into inland freshwater resources,” Johnson said. “Temperatures are very likely to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Sea levels are very likely to rise by between 0.1 and 0.9 metres.”
Johnson predicted that less rainfall or an increase in evaporation, due to higher temperatures would further strain the already limited amount of water available for agriculture, homes and industry. That could lead to even more problems.
“In general, summer rainfall will decrease by between 5 percent in the northern regions and 25 percent in the eastern and southern Cape. The Western Cape may lose as much as 35 percent of its current winter rainfall,” he said.
“Higher carbon dioxide levels will mean less protein in the grass, which will reduce any benefit resulting from increased plant growth. Less rainfall would lead to proportionately less animal production.”
For farmers struggling to feed their families and make a living, the damage caused by climate change can be ruinous.
FALLING MAIZE HARVESTS
Nothemba Radebe, a small-scale maize farmer in North West province, said she has seen a drastic drop in crop yields in recent years.
Maize, the staple crop for the region, is particularly susceptible to drought. As climate conditions continue to change, they are expected to hit the region’s food supply, make life harder for farmers and exacerbate already widespread poverty.
“The incidence of pest attacks on my crops has increased. This has resulted in an increase in my input costs, as I have to use more pesticides and chemicals to make sure that I will harvest something,” Radebe said.
“Also there is a great reduction in soil fertility and soil moisture, especially when we experience long dry periods,” she said.
She said when she started planting maize last season, she was expecting seven tons per hectare - but the yield was only half that.
“It has become a norm in the country that every year’s weather is worse than the year before - each summer is hotter, each winter more bitter,” said Parkwood Dairy’s Gent.
Fidelis Zvomuya, based in Pretoria, South Africa, is a writer specializing in environmental and agricultural reporting.