An Arid Future Arrives Early in South Africa's Farm Country
Climate Signals Summary: Climate change is increasing drought risk in certain regions by increasing temperatures, drying out the land, and lessening precipitation, or making it occur in more extreme bursts. Both South Africa and the Horn of Africa have been experiencing droughts since 2015.
Article Excerpt: Ben Brynard’s family has been farming sheep in northwest South Africa since 1923, and for the past 66 years has kept records on annual rainfall in the nearby town of Calvinia. In all that time, the three inches of rain he measured for 2019 was the least they’d ever gotten. Brynard looked at official records going all the way back to the late 1800s and confirmed: the area had never had a dryer year.
Calvinia is set within the Great Karoo, a semi-desert region occupying most of South Africa’s western interior and extending north into Namibia. At seven years and counting, the drought is just one of many weather-related crises gripping the region. A three-year dry spell that broke last year almost left Cape Town with no drinking water, and the most severe drought in Zimbabwe in 40 years has contributed to the worst ever famine in the country just to the north of South Africa. “The climate change models show that the Northern Cape will become dryer and warmer,” says Robbie Louw, a director at Promethium Carbon, a Johannesburg-based climate change advisory firm. “In some areas there is no natural vegetation left. It’s becoming like a desert.”
“The models used to show that this would happen by 2050,” Louw adds. “But it seems to be happening a lot faster.”
For many farmers, one more dry season could be all it takes. With two months remaining until the end of the rainy season, there’s no sign of relief on the horizon.
In 2019 only two-thirds of an inch of rain fell on his 43,000-acre farm, De Vries says. Three of his boreholes, the farm’s only source of water, have dried up, he explains as he empties feed into troughs for his flock of young Dorper ewes, a South African variety of sheep bred for meat. He spent about 1.6 million rand ($106,000) on feed such as pellets and corn last year.
Younger farmers are suffering the most, says Schalk Visagie, chairman of the Brandvlei Agriculture Union. “They have no reserves and they have debt from buying land, so some of them won’t survive this season if it doesn’t rain,” he says.