Namibia Economist (Windhoek)

1 February 2013

Namibia: Brace Yourself, Expectations for Rain Are Dismal

opinion

By all indications the rain season has been dismal except for a very narrow strip from roughly 100km east of Rundu to 100km west. Even this blessed area does not reach 15km south of Rundu. Reports of failing mahangu crops are coming in from Ruacana in the west, across the entire Owamboland to the western Okavango, covering most of the Okavango south of Rundu, continuing through Bwabatwa to the Caprivi.

Even the commercial crop growing areas in the Grootfontein district that are not under irrigation, face a failing crop.

Developments during January show just how vulnerable we are when it comes to the climate and specifically to water. Seven out of the past ten years, we have seen regular and extensive flooding in the northern regions across the entire length of the border with Angola stretching east to the border with Zambia. Unprecedented flooding has put us on the alert how to handle this crisis and mitigate its effects. This focus on too much water inevitably obscured the fact that Namibia is an arid country and that even its wettest corners are still dry by temperate standards. And it has been like this for tens of thousands of years. We essentially live in a desert or semi-desert area and it is only after our main rain month has come and gone that we realise the impact of too little water.

Even if it starts raining in February, there is not enough summer left to ensure crops and grazing revive. It is simply too late. February and March are the harvest months and the average crop requires about two months to grow to maturity. At this stage expectations for an improved rain season for the remainder of the summer, are rather dim.

The information I obtained from large commercial farms across the central plateu, is that new growth is negligible. What grazing is still available consists of the dry grass from the previous wet season at the beginning of 2012. Unexpectedly good rains at the end of November into December 2012 produced an early sprout but this quickly withered as the extensive January heat struck. At this point, new growth has not exceeded 20cm. And this veld has died before it could seed.

By the end of December expectations for early 2013 were still positive. In the eastern districts, most farms had received more than 100mm by that time with farms on the central plateau recording between 80 and 100 mm, and further west, also around 80mm. A few surprise showers in December gave the western districts a green look not usually associated with the end-of-year period. But then it stopped. For more than 90% of the entire country's surface area, the rainfall total for January hardly exceeds 5mm.

Where we stand now, the impact is not so severe yet. Households in the north still survive on the mahangu left-overs of the previous season while most commercial areas still have ample grazing from last year. The trouble comes in two to three months from now when the mahangu baskets are empty, and for cattle farmers, in August when every single blade has been cleared. There is no new crop or new grass to replace the last bits of last year.

In the northern communal areas where the food will run out in the next six weeks, we will have an emergency on our hands. The immediate need will be to provide bridging sustenance until larger consignments of food can be distributed. At the same time, grazing conditions will deteriorate and the national cattle herd will slowly be effected.

This situation always put cattle farmers in a difficult position. At some point the lack of grazing force them to market cattle which was only intended for slaughter late this year or early next year. Meat production increases but the price comes down. I shall not be amazed if by June/July this year, red meat producers will only get around N$22 per kg for Grade A meat, about the same price as May last year. When conditions get so bad that farmers are forced to clear their land, the quality of the carcasses are usually so poor, the grading is invariably lower and so is the price. And since agriculture is always a long-term investment, one must not forget it takes two to three years to rebuild a breeding herd that was decimated by drought.

In terms of the general water demand from households, factories, mines and other business, conditions at this point indicate that we may see considerable water restrictions by August. This puts a damper on industrial output and it generally complicates our lives. The last severe drought was in 1998. In 2007 and again in 2010, precipitation was below normal but it did not lead to a widespread water shortage as these two years were preceded and followed by very wet years.

When water restrictions kick in, it is slightly amusing to watch the water gauge the City of Windhoek usually puts up to remind us, daily, to save water, but once you get home and see the effect of a drought on your garden, your heart just sinks.

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