Day Zero only paints half the picture

South Africa is in the grips of a water shortage that is reaching a critical stage. Though much is said about the looming Day Zero in the Western Cape, the depleting water levels remain a concern in other parts of the country.

Day Zero in the Western Cape is estimated to take effect this May. This will largely depend on demand versus usage and supply through the alternative sources like boreholes, and any considerations of desalination. However, there should also be concern about the critical water shortages in provinces such as the Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.

The Eastern Cape and Northern Cape are facing the same shortage as the Western Cape. In fact, the Kouga Dam, which supplies water to Port Elizabeth and surrounding rural towns in the Eastern Cape, was sitting at 9.2% for the week ending 2nd February level before the recent rains, which will probably lift it in the short term to approximately 12% for the week ending 2nd February.

The western parts of the Northern Cape are also experiencing a prolonged drought and livestock farmers in these areas are under immense pressure.

The immediate agricultural impact will be on cash crops, such as vegetables, as well as livestock due to their high water needs, while perennial crops such as fruit with deeper root systems might hold on for a bit longer. We may also start to see output in terms of yields and fruit sizes decline. If the drought persists for another season some fruit trees might have to be uprooted – with longer term implications for supplies, as it takes them longer to replant and grow the trees to a point where they are sufficient for production.

The true impact of the drought will, in essence, depend on how the winter rain season plays out in the Western Cape and other parts of the country. However, given that the summer rain season started late, it is forecast that the winter season might also be late. This suggests that we may see a more prolonged length of the current drought.

We need to face another reality, in that even when the rains return, the crisis will not simply ‘wash away’.

Firstly, groundwater levels need to rise before any run-off to replenish the dams. The best case scenario would be a large amount of rain in a short space of time, in which case the process speeds up.

On the upside, South Africa has gone through a similar situation in the inland, when Vaal Dam water levels fell critically low. When the rains returned, the Vaal Dam levels went from empty to full within a space of three weeks.

The impact of Day Zero in Cape Town on agriculture is minimal in the short term as restrictions have already been in place to ensure that the industry does not make excessive use of water, which in essence mean that farmers are already past their Day Zero.

Should the drought persist, we may start to see a far more concerning impact on the industry. For now, we wait for the rains to return.

Dawie Maree is Head of Marketing and Information at FNB Agric Business.

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