The Drought in South Africa

Exploring El Niño and climate change in South Africa and how it affects the agricultural industry. 

The year 2015 was the hottest year recorded, breaking the previous record set in 2014, says the World Meteorological Organization. According to NASA, there was a 0.75°C increase in temperature felt worldwide, launching  South Africa into “the worst drought in thirty years” says BBC.   

The consequences of the drought have been widely felt throughout the country. People have experienced it through increased food prices and water shortages. In some places, such as in the North West, people have been left with taps running dry for a few days.

The drought has also affected some areas more severely than others. Provinces like the North West, the Free State and Kwazulu-Natal were the first to be declared disaster zones since early in 2015. Whereas some areas in the Western Cape did not experience the drought as severely.

Increased temperature and drought severity in November and December of 2015, a crucial period for rain in the interior of South Africa, disrupted the regular rainfall pattern leading to a decrease in rain. This placed the freshwater resources under increased pressure, according to a presentation by Trevor Balzer from Department of Water and Sanitation. The average dam levels across the country lingers at 53% capacity in June 2016, which is low compared to the norm of 74% in June 2015. Apparently, it will take at least three years for reservoirs to recover.

The Vaal Dam has caught the attention of the media as this dam supplies 12 million South Africans with water. It now sits at 33.8%, less than half of last year’s level which sat at around 74%. Apart from supplying people with water, it also supples many farms with irrigation.


Drop in dam levels country wide. Source: Graphics24.

In South Africa the agricultural industry utilises 60% of the fresh water for irrigation. The deficit in rainfall over 2015/2016 has meant that more water was needed for irrigation, negatively impacting on dam levels. The extra demand coupled with a drop in rainfall has led to many dam levels being in a critically low state.

There has been a distinct drop in rainfall in 2015 in South Africa. The last time such little rain was received in the country was in 1904.  The graph below illustrates the average annual rainfall per province and we can see that all provinces have taken a significant dip last year, with the provinces on the east and interior of the country dropping the most.

A ‘drought’ has always been associated with a prolonged period with abnormal low rainfall. However, climatologist Mark Tadross from CSAG (Climate Systems Analysis Grou) says we need to include an increase of temperature as an additional factor as the evaporation potential of higher temperatures can result in a drier climate too.

“The rainfall can remain the same, but then you can have hotter temperature and more ‘sunny’ days which increases evaporation,” says Tadross.

Last year was the hottest year in recorded history, with a rise of 0.75°C. It may not sound like much, but this increase affects the evaporation capacity has repercussions with larger climatic systems. Tadross elaborates further that it is not only the amount of rain that falls, but when the rain falls.

The El Niño is more harshly felt in the summer rainfall region of South Africa as it has a stronger hold on tropical climate (see next chapter). It has been recorded that winter rainfall in the Cape has remained average while there was a decline in summer rain across the interior.

Peter Johnston

Climatologist Peter Johnston. Source: CSAG.

Drought affects South Africa’s agriculture:

This small rise in temperature has been evident in agricultural production of crops in particular. Plants need a certain number of ‘chill units’ or cold days for fruit or grain overcome dormancy. Less chill units have impacted the fruit industry, as it has affected the quality and yield of fruit. In turn, the quality of fruit has meant that we cannot export the fruit as it is no longer up to standard.

Director Andre Roux from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, states that a shipment of table grapes reached its European destination and the container was opened only to discover that the entire batch had rotted on the way over. They tracked this poor harvest down to the decrease in chill units which inhibited the grapes to develop fully.

South Africa is already one of the most water scarce countries in the world, according to WWF. One of the industries that was hardest hit by the onset of the drought was the agricultural industry.

South Africa’s variable climate zones allow for a range of agricultural activities. We find intensive crop farming in winter rainfall and high summer rainfall areas, and livestock farming in the more arid regions, states a WWF Agriculture Report. Up to 59% of the country is suitable for grazing and only 12% of the land has fertile soil for sustaining crops.


Map of the distribution of agriculture in South Africa. Source: South African Info

Presently, 60% of South Africa’s freshwater is being used for crop irrigation. This is a lot, considering that only 1.2% of the land in the country is under intensive irrigation which produces 30% of the country’s crops. Water needed for irrigation is expected to double by 2050 given the increasing population size, increased demands and climate change.

The rest of the agricultural production predominantly takes place in dryland regions. Here, we find most of the grain production and grazing for cattle.

WWF came up with an interactive map that illustrates the areas that have most impacted by the recent drought. It indicates the regions that have felt the most stress depending on the type of agricultural practice (livestock or crop).

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