Food price fears as dam levels fall

Cost of meat and vegetables could soar as fearsome drought bites with no immediate relief in sight

A farm dam outside Uitenhage is bone dry
A farm dam outside Uitenhage is bone dry
Image: Eugene Coetzee

The Bay’s dire water situation – with supply dam levels having dropped to below 20% and no real rain relief expected in the near future – has raised the worrying spectre of soaring food prices.

Agri Eastern Cape president Doug Stern painted a grim picture on Tuesday of skyrocketing meat prices and problems with fruit and vegetable production should the situation continue.

The South African Weather Service has also expressed serious concern, with weatherman Garth Sampson saying that this year – with only 114mm of rain so far – has been the second driest since 1960.

The driest first six months of the year was recorded in 1970, when 111mm fell.

The municipality, asked about the possibility of more stringent water restrictions or higher tariffs, was not forthcoming initially, with metro spokesperson Mthubanzi Mniki first saying an announcement would be made “soon” and then later sending out a notice saying it would be made on Wednesday.

Stern said if no rain fell in the near future, it would affect the economy drastically – with meat prices, especially, spiking once again.

“The coastal areas are battling, areas of great concern are the Hankey and Patensie region because they fall under the [area fed by the] Kouga Dam [which has a water level of just 7.2%].

“Those farmers are faced with massive cash-flow problems because if the dam doesn’t get water, vegetable planting is going to be impossible and the citrus industry will also suffer, which will cause huge problems for our consumers.”

We are sitting on a ticking time bomb here.
Doug Stern, Agri Eastern Cape president

Another area of major concern was the western part of the Eastern Cape as this was the fourth consecutive year the area had experienced below average rainfall.

“It [reproductive capacity] has taken a great knock because of the conditions,” Stern said.

“The grazing conditions are very poor and these factors have affected farmers’ cashflows and turnover.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb here.

“It is a volatile situation that we are dealing with in agriculture and we are trying to do whatever we can to draw attention to the tremendous problems we are faced with and source some sort of funding to assist the farmers during the winter.”

He said a large portion of the agricultural sector had been affected by the drought.

“If we do get rain in the next six months, it would be a great start to beginning the process of rebuilding, but if we don’t the province is going to be in some serious trouble.”

Mniki said consumption levels in the metro had been reduced from 305 megalitres a day in September 2016 to about 265Ml a day to date.

However, the Bay is yet to reach its elusive target of 250Ml a day set in January 2017.

Asked where the biggest consumers of water in the metro were situated, Mniki said that information was not available.

Asked about the Nooitgedacht Low Level Water Scheme – which is set to add a further 70Ml of water to the city’s supply on its completion – Mniki said it was producing 140Ml a day now on average.

He said phase 3 was still under construction.

The scheme has been plagued with problems, with workers downing tools for more than a month earlier this year over pay issues.

The existing restrictions and tariffs were introduced by mayor Athol Trollip in May after the overall dam levels dipped below 30%.

In August 2016, when the average of the dam levels was 72%, Trollip had said that water restrictions would be implemented within the next week.

The individual figures for the five supply dams then were: Kouga 66.93%, Churchill 61.86%, Impofu 83.72%, Loerie 29.15% and Groendal 78.78%.

The average now is 19.27%, with Kouga at 7.52%, Churchill 16.08%, Impofu 30.52% Groendal 40.55% and Loerie – the smallest of the five – 69.8%.

“The municipality regards the situation as dire, it is closely monitored,” Mniki said.

Last night, he said Trollip would brief the media on Wednesday on the water situation.

Sampson, meanwhile, urged residents to use water sparingly as the seasonal forecast did not include a major rain event – something metro officials were banking on happening towards the end of the year.

Sampson said the seasonal outlook until late spring was especially grim for the southern coastal regions.

“Over the short term, there is no promise of any significant rainfall, with the upcoming weekend’s rainfall not showing anything of significance.

“Unfortunately, the seasonal forecast does not include anything like a heavy downfall in the near future but it will come sometime, when is just the question,” he said.

Sampson said the Bay would have to receive at least 50mm of rain to turn things around.

“To make any small difference to dam levels, we would need at least 50mm in 24 hours over the wider catchment areas, but much more is needed to fill the dams.”

He said July to September showed a significant chance of above-normal rainfall along the coast and over the interior, west of Port Alfred.

From August to November, the forecast showed “a high degree of confidence in below-average rainfall along the south coast and into the Langkloof [the Nelson Mandela Bay catchment area], right through to Mossel Bay.

“The coastal belt around East London up to Port St Johns shows a similar belowaverage trend for the period August to October,” he said.