As the winter season officially sets in, Newcastillians can now anticipate minimal rain in the coming months. However, it appears that the absence of rainfall might extend beyond the winter season.
This development follows recent highlights from the South African Weather Service (SAWS), indicating that researchers in South Africa and around the globe have reported the development of a strong El Niño in 2023.
This has been achieved through the regular monitoring of the El Niño Southern Oscillation or ENSO signal.
According to SAWS, this is the first occurrence of such an event since the 2018/19 and 2015/16 El Niño events, which had a significant impact on South Africa, leading to severe droughts in various summer rainfall areas.
SAWS explains that the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) signal is the strongest seasonally varying ocean-atmosphere signal known. They state, “These are names given to a particular state of the ocean-atmospheric configuration in the Pacific Ocean region, at various thresholds, in a continuously oscillating system. When the system reaches certain thresholds, we may declare that the system is in an El Niño state or La Niña state or a neutral state along a gradient from strong to weak.” The impact of this system on global weather patterns is well documented.
SAWS further explains that in southern Africa, the seasonal climate responds to this signal with generally warmer and drier conditions during the El Niño state and cooler and wetter conditions during the La Niña state.
El Niños have historically been associated with record heat and droughts in the summer rainfall region, while La Niñas have been linked to flooding.
With researchers indicating the development of a strong El Niño in 2023, SAWS highlights that this comes in addition to reports of unprecedented global sea surface temperatures and continuously rising average atmospheric temperatures.
“If this El Niño manifests as projected, we should expect significant impacts on the upcoming summer climate and weather in southern Africa,” warns SAWS.
When looking deeper into the impact of this weather system, El Niños are expected to have a major impact on the agricultural sector of South Africa.
Bertie Pretorius, a Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal wheat farmer, explains that the farming community has already been hit by rising fuel prices due to the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Additionally, the rainfall in 2022 negatively affected the last crop harvest, resulting in a drop from 9-10 tons to 7 tons for Pretorius, alone.
He further emphasises the significance of this decline, stating, “For many crop farmers, 7 tons is breaking even, and on top of that, the drop in crops such as wheat affects many daily household staples.”
Pretorius points out that local farmers reported approximately 1600 millimetres of rain, compared to the usual 900 millimetres.
While still recovering from the heavy rainfall in 2022, the prospect of El Niños causing reduced rainfall is creating concerns about a potential drought among farmers, according to Pretorious.
“The critical months would be from January to February when we need the rain the most as the crops will be flowering. Without rain, there will be minimal pollination, and the crops will not grow as they should,” elaborates Pretorius.
The highly experienced farmer goes on to say that there are currently 67 farmers in the Newcastle area. While many of them rely on irrigation during dry spells, this method is not always reliable due to load shedding.
“When the power goes off, the pump goes off, and you have to then go restart the pump. Due to the security situation, it is not always safe to restart the pump,” explains Pretorius.
Load shedding also poses security risks, as the criminal element often takes advantage of power outages by stealing transformers, which farmers use to mitigate outages.
“This affects all farmers. I have lost three transformers this year alone,” laments Pretorius, highlighting the ripple effect this has on farming.
Considering the risks of a drought caused by El Niños, load shedding, and the limitations on irrigation, Pretorius predicts that wheat and soya crops in the Newcastle area will be impacted. He adds that cattle grazing, which is a significant focus in the area, will also be affected as grass growth relies on rainfall.
Should the weather have an adverse impact, there is a potential shortage of wheat, soya, and beef, which could drive up prices.
Moreover, Pretorius advises local farmers to carefully manage their work budgets to secure input costs and sustain their operations for another year.
Although farmland dams currently have relatively full water levels, Pretorius cautions that relying solely on them for irrigation throughout the upcoming season might deplete the available water supply.
“We usually irrigate from rivers and dams, and if there is no rain, we will face difficult times,” tells Pretorius.
Considering the circumstances, the Newcastle farmer reveals that out of all the local farmers he knows, only five will be planting wheat this year due to the associated risks.
Always being innovative, amid the potential challenges posed by El Niños, local farmers are working on plans to ensure a continued supply of milk, meat and wheat for South Africans.
However, Pretorius reminds Newcastillians not to take anything for granted as farmers brace themselves for a tough season ahead.
Please share your thoughts on the above mentioned in the comment section below.