Fruit producers and other farmers in the Upper Berg River region of the Western Cape (Franschhoek, Paarl, Wellington, Hermon) are awaiting the date that their access to irrigation water from the Berg River will be suspended for the season. The Department of Water Affairs will determine the date, which could be any day now.
Irrigation access to the Berg River for producers in the Lower Berg River area (Porterville, Piketberg, Koringberg) was already cut off last week.
The suspension of water rights for agriculture doesn’t mean that all individual quotas have necessarily been used up, but that river levels are too low for further irrigation. “From the beginning of the season we were expecting that access to the river for irrigation would last only until the end of January,” explains Giel van Deventer, manager of the Berg River Irrigation Board, serving the Upper Berg River region. “Stonefruit and grape producers have been able to pull their early cultivars through but for producers whose harvest still lies ahead, like late varieties of grapes and stonefruit, citrus and pomegranates, there will be a problem. The effect on all of the production in this area will be severe.” The Berg River grape harvest is barely halfway through.
Billy Bourbon-Leftley, chair of the Berg River Irrigation Board, emphasises the importance of size in determining the quality of export fruit, a factor that is strongly dependent on optimal irrigation. However, the influence of the drought extends beyond fruit calibre and quality. “The drought has a snowball effect – there’s the loss of employment on farms where fewer workers are required if volumes are smaller. It affects the manufacturers of cartons and other packaging material, it affects the people in the logistics chain. Local businesses in agricultural towns are also feeling the pinch. It’s a much broader crisis than people realise.”
The executive director of Agri Western Cape, Carl Opperman, refers to a joint study by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy and the technical departments of the agricultural industries in the province which has shown that there is a decrease of 30% in food production when producers have 60% less water, as is currently the case. Not only does this endanger food security, but amid job losses there are also rising food prices. Agri Western Cape expects a 25% drop in this season’s stonefruit harvest, with a concomitant loss in foreign earnings for the country. Among other stakeholders in the agricultural sector there are expectations of a decrease of more than 25% in fruit exports from the Western Cape.
Boreholes a booming business
Sinking boreholes has become booming business. It’s a seller’s market for borehole engineers. The price for a borehole starts at around R100,000 (€6,700) but could rise to double that amount when pumps and electricity are added to the calculation, all from the producer’s own pocket. “It’s our insurance policy for when we’re not allowed water from the river,” says Billy Bourbon-Leftley, who points out that few farms can wholly meet their water needs through underground supplies or farm dams.
However, sinking boreholes isn’t an option everywhere. “We don’t have good underground water supplies, because of our flat topography, unlike amid the mountains of the Boland where there is runoff from the mountains. Very few farmers in our area have boreholes because we were always used to pumping from the river,” says Bernard Conradie, chair of the Lower Berg River Irrigation Board. He notes that in their area, where irrigation from the Berg River has now ceased for the season, they were in fact hoping that their water allocation would stretch until the end of February. However, they knew irrigation from the river wouldn’t last all summer and farmers have been filling up farm dams and creating new ones. “Everywhere there’s a hollow, it’s now filled up with water and farmers cooperate, some share their remaining water with their neighbours.”
Furthermore, there have been concerns over the level of the underground water table. To address this, the government has published a proclamation on 12 January in the government gazette that water usage from boreholes must be limited to 40% of the borehole’s potential, with immediate effect. This will necessitate water meters on boreholes, but industry is still awaiting more information on how the limit on borehole extraction will be enforced.
Enforcement of water restrictions is a challenge. Producers have told FreshPlaza of repeated appeals to the Department of Water Affairs and its investigative agency, the Blue Scorpions, to monitor water usage infractions, for instance the usage of water earmarked for municipal use by the agricultural sector.
It’s not only water availability that is a grave problem, but water quality too. With insufficient winter rain to flush river systems and salt concentration levels rising in the water remaining in dams, farmers are measuring electrical conductivity (EC) levels far beyond acceptable for crop production, affecting sensitive crops like potatoes, onions and blueberries. Bernard Conradie points out that excessive salt levels – up to 1,500 Siemens/cm – have already cost him a third of his butternut crop this season, due to internal burning.
There is currently a 60% limit on agriculture’s water use from the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) that provides the Greater City of Cape Town. There is a 45% limit on water for urban use.
For more information:
Berg River Irrigation Board
Tel: +27 21 860 3500