Eastern Cape drought menaces rural economy
The Kouga Dam, the main dam in the Gamtoos citrus and vegetable farming district, remains at a critically low 10%
The debilitating drought in the Eastern Cape is likely to hit poor rural villagers and seasonal farm workers hard unless rain falls soon, say farmers and water authorities.
Although widespread rain over the past week saw provincial dam levels rise marginally (to an average of 69% from 68.1% a week ago), the distribution is uneven, and some areas have received little rain. The Kouga Dam, the main dam in the Gamtoos citrus and vegetable farming district, remains at a critically low 10% after rain in February, before which it was at a record low of 7.1%.
About 46,000 people live in Hankey and Patensie, while another 40,000 people live in rural villages and on farms. Kouga Municipality introduced water rationing in August 2017.
Fruit and vegetable farming is completely dependent on irrigation, and district farmers have largely abandoned vegetable crops to favour their fruit trees. Agriculture is the main economic activity in the district.
Petrus du Preez of Agri Eastern Cape farmers’ union said on Wednesday that some farmers with long-term retail contracts had moved their operations to other areas to retain their relationships. "It is not cost-effective, but they are doing it to survive."
It means there will be less work for seasonal labour as the citrus harvest period ends and the vegetable planting season begins, said Du Preez. "Young trees can be kept alive with hand watering, but not vegetables."
March is usually a rainy month for the area. The forecast for the coming months was poor, said South African Weather Service spokesman Garth Sampson. "We need widespread rain of 50mm or more to make any difference to our main storage dam levels."
District farmer Kaya Katoo said that farmers were "desperately trying" not to lay off staff. "We have been forced to make cut-backs and are trying to avoid more."
Neighbouring farmer Marthinus Colesky, who stopped producing vegetables in February, said many of his workers were sole breadwinners. "Losing their jobs would be devastating, so instead of harvesting vegetables … I am giving them maintenance and other jobs," he said.