The WC drought is battering the agricultural industry

The City of Cape Town has managed to delay Day Zero until mid-May, as a result of declining agricultural usage and a generous water donation from local farmers. But agriculture’s reduced water allocation has already had devastating effects on the agricultural sector and the economy – and this is only expected to worsen.  

Day Zero is the day the dams in the Western Cape will drop below 13.5% capacity, taps will be turned off and Capetonians will have to collect water at one of 200 guarded checkpoints around the city. 

“Agricultural usage is likely to drop significantly over the next weeks,” the City of Cape Town said in a statement on Monday. Presently the agriculture sector is using 30% of the water in the supply scheme but the City estimates this to fall to roughly 15% in March and 10% in April.

This is because many of the agricultural users in the Western Cape Supply System – where the City also draws its water from – had used up the water allocated to them as per agreement with the national department of water and sanitation (NDWS) and as a result. The national department has now turned off the supply to two irrigation boards that used up their full allocation by the end of January 2018.

“The City therefore feels more confident that agriculture will stay within their allocation this year, as opposed to the previous year. Had agricultural releases not slowed down, the threat of Day Zero would have moved closer,” the statement said. There has not been any significant decline in urban usage however, and residents are still encouraged to save water.

Day Zero was also pushed back because of a water donation. On Tuesday Groenland Water Users Association began the release of 10 million cubic meters of water from the Eikenhof Dam to the Palmiet River in Grabouw which they are donating to the City of Cape Town. Ten million cubic meters of water translates to 10 billion litres of water. Cape Town’s current consumption rate is at just over 550 million a day which means the donation has the potential to last the city for about 18 – 20 days.

While this is a gracious act, it raises questions about water ownership. In 2015, the Mail & Guardian reported that of the 4000 registered dams in South Africa, only 350 were owned by government.
This was raised in Parliament on Wednesday and members of parliament have called for private-owned dams in the country to be transferred to the DWS. According to the acting chairperson of the portfolio committee on water and sanitation Hlomane Chauke, 78% of the water that is under the control of department goes to agriculture, with only 23% going to domestic and only 3% going to industry which is mining and others. 

Agri Western Cape’s CEO Carl Opperman responded to the City of Cape Town’s statement on Tuesday and said Day Zero hasn’t moved back because agriculture’s water allocations are depleted.

“Agriculture’s reduced water allocation has been curtailed by between 60% and 87% months ago,” he said. Producers’ water quota in the Berg River region is totally depleted. Opperman said that while agriculture in the Western Cape has done everything it could to conserve its already reduced water allocation, other role players have not managed their water allocation in the same way. The reduced water allocation because of the drought has already impacted on the agricultural sector and the economy of the Western Cape as a whole significantly, he added.

The limited water supply is costing Western Cape Agriculture. The damage caused by the ongoing drought on the Western Cape’s agricultural sector is already estimated at R14 billion, according to a statement by Agri Western Cape on 29 January.  The Western Cape farms fruit, wine grapes, grain and livestock – and the drought has had disastrous consequences for yield.  

About 50% less onions and 80% less potatoes were planted in the Ceres area this season. This not only has an effect on food production, it also means wage losses of millions of rands for seasonal workers. This may also mean consumers will see price increases. This also impacts factories because the value chain needs raw products from producers and when it isn’t provided, this is detrimental for the community. Two tomato canning factories in Saldanha Bay terminated operations, which means between 4 000 to 6 000 job potential losses in the West Coast town and surrounds. A tomato puree factory in Lutzville also gave notice that they will not open this season because of the lack of production.

According to indications deciduous fruit crop yield will be 20% smaller, plums 10%, peaches and nectarines between 5 and 6%, apricots 16% and table grapes from the Olifants-region at 23% smaller. A similar story can be told of wine grapes, grain and livestock.

Farmers have also been making an effort to save water and cut back hundreds of hectares of citrus trees and orchards, with buds trimmed off vines and trees. This will affect the following years harvest and put pressure on the socio-economic and economic well-being of the rural communities, which will put pressure on National Treasury.

It also has disastrous consequences for seasonal workers. It means less seasonal workers will be employed for a shorter period of time, meaning an estimated 50 000 seasonal workers will have a lower income – or no income at all.

In terms of South Africa’s agricultural exports, the fruit industry is the largest contributor by value. It also has a high job-multiplier effect which means it creates thousands of jobs in the value chain. The industry is also a key generator of valuable foreign currency inflows, which is now also under pressure.

The environmental scarcity could result in migration – people might move to other parts of the country where they don’t have to queue for water. All these factors result in the rise of the cost of capital which could eventually mean an economic downgrade for South Africa.

Featured image via Flickr