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Potato production in the north of the country expected to offset potential drop in volumes from the Western and Eastern Cape

South Africa: Water shortages could constrain potato plantings

The drought is affecting potato plantings in the southern parts of South Africa. Only about a third of the usual plantings in the Koue Bokkeveld (Ceres area) will realise due to water supply constraints, but this is a relatively small area in terms of its contribution to the total crop. Whether the amount of water from boreholes will suffice to optimally irrigate this season’s potato crop in the southern areas, remains to be seen, says Dr André Jooste, CEO of Potatoes SA.

Sandveld potato plantings down by 600ha last year
Further north in the Western Cape in the Sandveld, traditionally a major potato production area, there was already a decrease of 600ha in potato plantings last year as a response to the third year of drought. Downstream of the Clanwilliam Dam the water situation is dire; the dam didn’t overflow this past season, the flow of the Olifants River is severely diminished and the water table level wasn’t adequately replenished by winter rainfall. Irrigation from rivers and dams accounts for 10% to 20% of water supply for potato fields in this important production region. The situation is putting tremendous strain on producers in this region. 

“Before winter we might lose some more hectares since rivers and dams don’t have enough water. On average, the water levels of boreholes are still manageable, but for how long? Water quality is already providing some problems,” Dr Jooste continues.

For 2018, depending on the amount of winter rainfall, fewer hectares of potatoes could be planted in the Sandveld. What happens with rainfall from February onwards will be crucial, with normal rainfall equating to normal plantings, while lower rainfall will most probably translate into lower plantings. Up until then supplies should be sufficient.

Gamtoos Valley plantings could halve if situation continues
The Eastern Cape is equally acutely affected by the drought – the important Kouga Dam currently stands at 9.6%, of which much goes towards citrus orchards which have expanded over the past few years. Last year there was a decrease of 200ha in potato plantings. “If subnormal rainfall realises for the remainder of 2018, the current surface area of almost 700ha could easily halve,” Dr Jooste says. “Given the low dam level of the Kouga, potato farmers can’t do any planning for the rest of the year. They’re waiting for substantial rain. There is much concern about particularly the newly established citrus orchards.”

Fortunately, the drought in the north of the country appears to have been broken and a normal harvest is expected from Limpopo and the Free State. Northern potatoes will be channelled to the Cape markets, but if volumes from the north are insufficient, there will doubtless be pressure on potato supplies for Cape consumers. Already the average price of potatoes are slightly higher at the Cape Town fresh produce market than in the interior (R49,55 in Cape Town versus R43,37 at the Johannesburg market per 10kg bag today). 

"At the end of the day price levels will be determined by demand and supply forces in the markets," he concludes.

For more information:
Dr André Jooste
Potatoes SA
Tel: +27 12 349 1906

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