Named for the Christ child by South American fishermen because of the warming of the Pacific Ocean surface waters off Chile, usually in December, El Niño – which brings much drier conditions than its counterpart La Niña – is predicted to make its appearance later this year, with dire warnings of soaring temperatures, and reduced rainfall in Southern Africa.
South Africa’s agriculture sector must prepare for unprecedented drought in 2024 on the back of a year of record flooding and rainfall, particularly along the Eastern seaboard of the country, experts warn.
Dr Thomas Funke, CEO at SA Canegrowers says despite the ruinous flooding and heavy rainfall experienced over much of the country’s sugarcane growing regions since early in 2022, predictions of a drought in 2024 – expected to exceed the temperatures experienced in the 2014-2019 years – were of grave concern.
Official reports have predicted the emergence of increased extreme weather instability as global warming influences the voracity of both the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern.
While the presence of La Niña (little girl in Spanish) usually means good rainfall and abundant seasons, El Niño translates as much drier seasons and drought conditions, particularly in southern Africa, but also results in floods in East Africa.
In The Wall Street Journal early in February (https://www.wsj.com/articles/el-ninos-return-grows-more-likely-as-la-nina-weather-pattern-winds-down-fb43cc58), climate journalist Eric Niiler describes La Niña as “part of a shifting weather pattern …that occurs when unusually strong trade winds push warm Pacific Ocean surface waters west towards Asia”.
El Niño, on the other hand, is when these trade winds weaken and warmer-than-normal water “sloshes” from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern Pacific.
La Niña has dominated climatic conditions since 2017 after 2016 was declared the hottest year on record worldwide. These conditions were driven mainly by a “major” El Niño.
Scientists are warning the likely return of El Niño later this year could see the world warm by 1.50C or more. While this year is expected to be hotter than 2022, scientists are predicting the full impact of El Niño will play out in 2024, with temperatures expected to soar across the globe.
Funke said the weather patterns experienced by sugarcane growers since early in 2022 as a direct result of the presence of La Niña had resulted in exponential flooding with damage to both farm and supporting infrastructure costing about a quarter of a million rand in 2022 alone.
“After last year’s flooding many farmers had to replant their fields due to root rot, and now we have more than 2 500ha of sugarcane under water due to back-flooding on the Umfolozi Flats,” Funke said.
Similarly, sugarcane growers in Mpumalanga had experienced exponential rainfall and flood damage following the impact of five tropical cyclones and four tropical storms off the coast of Mozambique since the start of 2022, Funke added.
Professor Mark Laing, Professor Emeritus and Chair of Plant Pathology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said human-induced weather instability had increased the volatility and voracity of the La Niña and El Niño phenomena, resulting in greater oscillations between floods and droughts, and extreme heat and extreme cold, resulting in exponential damage to crops and farm operations in the country.
“Agriculture requires stability on a seasonal basis for crops and animals to flourish. Climatic instability is always bad for agriculture and for supporting infrastructure, such as roads, rail, water and electricity, on which food production relies. It will also disrupt global supply chains, meaning sourcing food from alternative markets will become increasingly difficult,” he said.
Laing warned farmers to diversify by including crops able to tolerate variable climatic conditions, such as cassava and tree crops like avocado, macadamia and litchi.
“Mono- or duo-cultures are no longer sustainable. Farmers must look to the development of agronomic practices to allow for their crops to cope with extreme weather events.”
AgriSA’s head of policy and natural resources and a member of the Presidential Climate Change Committee, Janse Rabie said South Africa’s farmers were in a precarious position.
“Farmers are intrinsically linked to the natural environment. They are well aware of the impact of climate change. But it has never been more expensive than it is now to produce food. Input costs have never ever been this high. The increase in the minimum wage last year was an added blow. The good seasons we have enjoyed since 2017/19 are probably coming to an end. We are very concerned about the El Niño predictions by our scientists particularly as our farmers are so vulnerable right now. Our message to farmers is to start preparing now for what we believe will be unprecedented drought conditions,” Rabie said.
Funke said the diversification of production in the sugarcane industry as well as the current drive to add value-add downstream products such as cane juice, biofuels and bioplastics were directly in line with the SA Canegrowers’ plan to support farmers in their bid to make their farming operations more resilient to climate change.
In official figures the 2015/16 South Africa’s sugarcane growers harvested 14.43mts of sugarcane against 20.2mts in 2013/14. Rainfall for the 2015/16 season was at its lowest since 1995 across the cane growing regions.
Andrea Campher who is the Risk and Disaster Manager at AgriSA said the association was warning farmers to plan well ahead and to shore up the resilience of their operations. “We can’t tell farmers how to farm, that’s not our expertise. But what I can say is farmers can look to investigate climate smart agriculture methodologies, investigate various insurance products and new technologies. Planning is everything, be aware of early warning systems and be aware of what is happening around you.”
The delicate balance, Campher said was for farmers to adapt and to be well prepared for extreme weather conditions while at the same time remaining economically viable and sustainable.
“It is an imperative for our food security,” she said.