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May 31, 2012

Is South Africa on the brink of a 15 year cyclical drought period?

The vice president of South Africa's most prominent farmers' union says the country has traditionally had a  cycle of alternating 15 year periods of drought and abundant rain. He cautions that a dry period is about to begin, and worries that a government grappling with many other pressures is unprepared for this possibility and its consequences.

Theo de Jager is vice president of AgriSA, representing the country's dominant white farmers, who parts of the majority rule black government consider as privileged relics from the apartheid era who are always moaning and groaning about one thing or another because of the trauma of losing political control. Tensions between the black government and the white farmers rise and fall but are pretty much ever-present, particularly over the hanging sword of the inevitability of land reform to try to 'de-racialize' land holding and farming.

However, de Jager has earned himself a reputation of being of the more modern, reformist wing of what is politely called 'conservative' commercial farmers whose attitudes their critics argue are out of step with the political and demographic realities of the new, post-1994/post-apartheid South Africa.

What does bit of political history have to do with preparing for a possible long drought? Plenty, because the ruling ANC's strong, historical suspicion of/antipathy to groups like AgriSA, many of whose members were a prominent, important part of the still painfully-remembered, despised old racial order, means the warnings by de Jager even about a 'neutral' subject like preparing for drought may be ignored by those who need to make policy decisions to counter such a possibility.

de Jager says the last two decades of relative rain abundance for South Africa have also coincided with majority rule. This means a severe, prolonged dry spell would be a far-reaching crisis for which the majority rule ANC government has had no experience in handling since coming to power in 1994.

“The current government has never had to manage a drought … You think people are angry about e-Tolls, imagine how angry they will be when the costs of their food shoot up as harvests drop,” de Jager warned.

Among the coping strategies the Mail and Guardian article mentions as being required are to look at water in a regional rather than just national context. A water expert quoted says ''the value of water has to be seen
differently. Any future plans therefore have to involve a lowering of water intensity and trade-offs between the different sectors of the economy.''

Water scarcity and the need for improved management are pressing issues allover Africa and beyond, but in most places, policy makers are many steps behind farmers and others who will be most affected by the water crises that there are already many signs off allover the globe.

The Mail and Guardian article is headed 'Farming out South Africa's water worries.'

African Agriculture

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