By Mpho Tebele
Gaborone- The United Nations has warned of a looming crisis as delayed rains and below-average precipitation since October have reduced cereal production prospects and lowered pasture yields in Southern Africa.
This is contained in the latest report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) detailing the impact of reduced rains, which is expected to have caused a contraction in the area planted and lowered yield prospects in most parts of the region.
The report states that “Since the start of the 2018/19 cropping season in October, anomalous dry conditions have developed across parts of Southern Africa, with more intense moisture deficits registered in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, in addition to the western parts of Madagascar.”
In Botswana, the report says, rainfall in October and November was about 60-65% below average.
The reduced seasonal rains, notably in western portions, has led to the deterioration in vegetation conditions, negatively affecting pasture productivity and quality as well as diminishing water resources for livestock (e.g. drinking and servicing).
The report says rangeland provides the bulk of feed requirements and the use of supplementary feed is not a common practice among the majority of households in the traditional farming sector.
A continuation of these conditions would likely inhibit livestock production and raise mortality rates in 2019, with an adverse impact on food availability and income levels.
In Namibia, the report says, rains were similarly below average across most of the country during the last quarter of 2018, which corresponds to the planting period of the summer cereal crops to be harvested from April.
Some of the lowest cumulative rainfall was registered in central and southern parts of Otjozondjupa Region, the bulk of Omaheke Region, eastern parts of Hardap and //Kharas regions, several pockets in Erongo, Kunene, Khomas (eastern parts) and the north-eastern regions (including the regions of Omusati, Oshana and Oshikoto), where a significant proportion of communal farming households are located.
The reduced rainfall levels are expected to have delayed sowing activities and impeded early crop development, particularly given the low use of irrigation by communal farming households.
According to the report, in South Africa, the largest rainfall deficits were recorded in western provinces of Northern Cape and Western Cape, where cumulative rains between October and December were more than 50% below average.
These areas, the report notes, account for a small proportion of the total national maize output and, hence, reduced harvests would have a comparatively smaller impact on the national outcome. In central and eastern provinces, where the bulk of the summer maize crop is grown, moisture deficits have also been observed, but to a lesser degree.
In eastern regions of Mpumalanga and Kwazulu Natal, rainfall has been mostly sufficient to facilitate planting activities and for normal crop growth, with only a few areas showing signs of water stress. In the central regions, crop conditions are more mixed and, in some cases, poor.
In the large cereal‑producing provinces of Free State and North West, reduced rains delayed plantings and are expected to have curbed the area sown; cumulative rainfall at the provincial level has been 40‑50% below average since October.
In other parts of the sub-region, below-average rains were registered in Lesotho, western parts of Zambia and Zimbabwe, which interrupted and set back planting activities. As a result, the area sown to cereal crops is estimated to have contracted for the 2018/19 cropping season to an average or below‑average level in these countries.
Weather forecasts for much of the sub-region during the February‑April period point to a slightly higher likelihood of below‑normal rainfall, while in Botswana, South Africa, Madagascar, Malawi and Zambia, precipitation volumes are expected to be near average
“Forecasts also point to an increased probability of higher temperatures, which could exacerbate the negative impact of reduced rains on crop yields.
Overall, the 2019 cereal production outlook in most parts of Southern Africa has diminished since the start of the season and average to below-average harvests are foreseen,” the report says.
“It further warns that livestock production is also expected to be curtailed by the dry weather conditions. However, prospects in Malawi, Madagascar and Zambia, based on current conditions and predicted weather patterns, are more favourable.South Africa, which plays a key role in regional maize supply, has also warned of a deficit in production.
Reports indicate that South Africa’s agricultural industry body AgriSA will approach banks, agribusiness and government to raise R3 billion (US$220 million) to help farmers hit by severe drought.