The growth projections in Mzansi’s agriculture sector for 2021 are looking up as long as commodity prices are maintained and weather conditions materialise as predicted because of the La Niña weather pattern, says Dr John Purchase, chief executive of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz).
Purchase’s sentiments are echoed by two weather experts who believe that the La Niña weather will bring heavy rainfall across the summer rainfall regions of Southern Africa. However, they warn that the La Niña (“the girl” in Spanish) could also bring the risk of widespread flooding to southern Africa and cause diseases and pests for the livestock industry.
La Niña is a weather pattern that results in the abnormal cooling of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific. The event enhances the probabilities for summer rains globally including Southern Africa, particularly in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa. The phenomenon occurs every two to seven years.
Johan van den Berg, an agricultural meteorologist, says La Niña weather in the past has been responsible for above-average rainfall in the summer rainfall areas, often causing localised flooding. In general, though, it is very positive for agriculture especially in the central to the western parts of the country where it is currently still extremely dry.
He believes that the drought-stricken areas that were affected by the drought that began in 2012 should expect very good rainfall for this season due to the La Niña weather conditions. However, the heavy rainfall could cause flooding which will affect the livestock industry adversely.
“It is very positive for the extensive grazing areas in the Northern Cape, the North West province and the Free State, but it is a high risk due to the wet conditions,” he warns. He predicts that the expected wet conditions could cause animal diseases and pests.
Van den Berg reveals that La Niña will probably reach its peak in December or January and it will last until about April or May next year.
“The effects will also be positive, especially from January to March, because it is usually the period of high rainfall, but the anticipated high-risk flooding could damage grasslands.
“We have already seen that this past weekend in the northern Free State. There was an area that received about 140 ml in about an hour so there was some huge damage to the fields,” he says.
La Niña currently present in the Pacific Ocean
Francois Engelbrecht, a member of the Global Change Institute (GCI) and environmental scientist at Wits university, shares that currently, in November 2020, a modest to strong La Niña event is present in the Pacific Ocean. It is predicted to last throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer and into autumn of 2021.
He reveals that South Africa has experienced a generally good onset of its summer rains in October and November, and seasonal predictions indicate that rainfall will likely also be normal to above normal during the mid-summer period of December to February, across most of the summer rainfall region.
He predicts that the La Niña event will contribute positively to agriculture on the rest of the subcontinent provided that the rainfall reaches the drought-stricken areas.
“Dam levels are often replenished in the eastern mega dams in and around Lesotho, improving our water security and providing a buffer for the drier years. Agriculture is also generally favoured by the occurrence of widespread rain that falls regularly throughout the summer season.
“In November 2020, it may be noted that much of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, as well as the eastern parts of the Northern Cape and western Limpopo Province remain in the grip of an extreme drought. It will be important to monitor whether La Niña will bring good falls of rain to particularly these parts of the country,” he says.
He cautions however that not everything about La Niña weather conditions is positive.
“These events also bring the risk of widespread flooding to Southern Africa. In fact, tropical lows and cyclones make landfall over Mozambique more frequently during La Niña than El Niño [La Niña’s opposite counterpart] or neutral years and can also bring devastating flooding to the north-eastern parts of South Africa,” he warns.