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Rainfall far below average in some citrus and subtropical fruit production areas

Northeastern South Africa experiences very dry summer

The drought in the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape is well-publicised, but towards the north-east of the country – important for citrus and subtropical fruit production as well as vegetables – farmers are becoming very worried. This is summer rainfall area and normal rainfall was expected this summer, but the rainfall has been particularly patchy and up here, too, the dreaded word of ‘drought’ is being uttered.

Despite good rainfall in the central and western areas of South Africa, areas to the north have had barely any rain this year. Up near Botswana, north of the Soutpansberg Mountains, a vegetable farmer calls the situation “very very bad”.

The Glen Alpine Dam in the Mogalakwena River, 105% full this time last year, is now just 11% full. “It’s an ugly year. In the veld trees have started dropping their leaves, people are talking about selling off all of their game [wild animals] because they have no more grazing. Two weeks ago we turned at 44°C, at least we’ve had more cloudy days since last week, but it’s still in the thirties.”

He recounts that many vegetable farmers have put their plantings on hold. “January and February are our only months to obtain sufficient daylength for onion production but there are farmers who have returned their onion seed to the seed companies this season. They planted no onions this year – January was just too hot for proper germination and there’s been no rain to sustain young plants. Same with butternuts. There are large butternut plantings in this part of the country and some major producers haven’t planted a single butternut seed this year.”

The frustrating part of the dry summer is the very localised nature of rainfall – one farm receives close to 100mm, while its neighbours get as little as 12mm. “Such patchy showers is part of a drought pattern,” says one producer. “In a normal year rain comes down from Botswana and covers a very wide area with substantial rain that fills up every little hole and crevice. Now some boreholes that have been going strong for 40 years are starting to struggle.”

The Limpopo River hasn’t yet been running all the way to the Indian Ocean this season. South of the Soutpansberg, however, Levubu has had 53mm over the past ten days. 

A producer in Hoedspruit says: “There’s no good news from our side. We’ve had barely 3mm since the start of the year. Every day temperatures are in the high thirties or low forties and the citrus trees are remaining in a state of stress. In November and December there were incidences of sunburn, we’ve had more cloud cover since then. The lemon harvest has started and it’s looking good, but on oranges and grapefruit the fruit are remaining small. We need rain for size.”

Around Tzaneen (where the Tzaneen Dam is 38.5% full) a fruit farmer says the season has been very disappointing. “We’re way below our average numbers and the dams are not taking up any water. We were expecting a normal summer but drought has returned, I’m afraid. Last week Politsi and Duiwelskloof had 20 or 30mm and we had 3mm. It looks green and beautiful around here but there’s no runoff and from a water storage point of view, we’re heading for trouble.”

He continues: “It’s an unpleasant situation. “

The Lowveld is in better nick, with around 150mm already this year. “It’s not looking bad at all in the Lowveld,” says a macadamia technical adviser. “It’s raining often, although it definitely is a bit warmer than last year.” Nelspruit has had 18mm over the past ten days.

The Lowveld

Some rain in the Cape
At the opposite end of the country, there’s little to report. Patensie in the Gamtoos Valley had 17mm last Friday, very welcome in an area acutely gripped by drought, which brings a bit of relief to the citrus orchards but sadly does nothing for the Kouga Dam, its main water source, which is 10% full, for its water catchment area is the Langkloof where a mere sprinkling has fallen.

“Our harvest looks really good, fruit set was very satisfactory, but now we need water to get them to maturity,” says a Patensie citrus grower. “We’re very grateful for the 17mm but really, it makes little difference. You win perhaps a day or two on your irrigation schedule. Last week was incredibly hot here, in the 40 degrees.” 

Cape Town had some rain over the weekend (most fell in the Strand: 19mm) but barely anything north of the city. Around 5mm reported outside Stellenbosch, little more than 2 or 3mm in towns to the north, which evaporates quickly in their high temperatures. February is always a very hot month in the Boland, this year perhaps slightly hotter than normal, according to a meteorologist. “It is summertime, our dry period, so we can’t expect much rain at the moment anyway.”

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