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Drought and Load Shedding Endanger Food Security in the Eastern Cape

13 January 2020

It’s no secret that the Eastern Cape has been feeling the heavier effects of the drought compared to the Western Cape and other parts of South Africa. What’s worse is that with the rise of load shedding, our problems may be on the verge of doubling.

Laments of Load Shedding 

During the height of load shedding last year, Nicol Jansen (Agri SA Chairman: Economics and Trade Centre of Excellence) said, “Load shedding will have an impact on irrigation-reliant and energy-intensive industries like the horticulture, dairy, poultry, grains and agro-processing industry.” 

The chain reaction, according to senior agricultural economist at FNB Paul Makube, begins with input and maintenance costs for farmers and ends with price increases for consumers. This is because products, especially those with a limited shelf life, will become more costly to produce without a consistent electricity supply.

Continuing Drought Troubles

With this added to the longstanding drought, the above-mentioned horticulture, dairy and grain industries are in even deeper trouble. The drought goes further to also affect red meat production. These industries are now facing output shortages, financial constraints and a decline in employment figures, but Grain SA’s Jannie de Villiers insists that food security must become the top priority. 

BBC Africa’s Andrew Harding visited Graaff-Reinet at the end of 2019 to investigate what he found to be the region’s worst drought in living memory. The area had gone without substantial rainfall for up to five years. He met with various farmers, one of whom had at the time already lost nine cows from starvation owing to the drought. Of the bigger, more-established farms, an owner had to get rid of all of his cattle because there was nothing left for them to graze on. 

A local municipality engineer explains that what is happening is a part of climate change and Harding puts it quite simply, “The lessons from here are urgent and familiar: plan earlier, adapt faster.”

What’s Next?

In terms of the load shedding crisis, Eskom has not made any exceptions for the agricultural industry and we cannot make any predictions at this point as to how much longer we will be dealing with these obstacles. 

With the drought, on the other hand, we experienced the second rainfall in some of the driest areas of the Eastern Cape since the start of the new year on 8 January 2020. By the end of that week, Graaff-Reinet recorded as much as 40 mm of rain. Addo Elephant Park, Makhanda (Grahamstown) and Port Elizabeth also received some good rain.

Although a small victory to some, the heavy rainfall did not fill the Nqweba dam in the least, according to Dr Gideon Groenewald – a hydrologist, geologist and palaeontologist.

And so, Groenewald emphasises that drilling boreholes is of utmost importance, far more than waiting for more rain. 

“In terms of water, Graaff-Reinet has no choice but to drill boreholes,” says Groenewald. “There is not rain in the clouds so the only source of water is groundwater.” 

It is far from simple as this proposed solution comes with its own intricacies, from looking at shallow versus deep boreholes to ensuring that the boreholes are not over-utilised or pumped too fast. 

What is imperative is that we are not just waiting, but actively exploring all possibilities. The dams may still be empty, but the hope that January’s rainfall brought with it is palpable in the long-awaited scenes of children playing in puddles to celebrate. 

Let this hope drive us forward.