Gauteng and NW Province

Farming out SA’s water worries

Sipho Kings Mcdermott

The impact of water scarcity on crop farming will soon be one of SA’s biggest problems. We may need to look across beyond our borders for a solution.

Two decades of high rainfall have masked South Africa’s traditional water scarcity. To solve looming problems the country will have to work with its neighbours to share water and agriculture resources, as well as reallocate its internal resources.

Traditionally, S.A. has 15-year wet and dry cycles. The general trend indicates that the next dry cycle should start this year. But since the dawn of democracy unusually high levels of rainfall have made water seem limitless and its price has stayed low, says Dr Theo de Jager, vice president of AgriSA.

At the moment the country produces a surplus from farming, even though it is the third-driest country per capita in the continent, he said. But with growing water costs and lower rainfall looming this could dramatically change, he said.

“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,” he warned.

This comes after a recent announcement by Edna Molewa, minister of environmental affairs, that due to infrastructure costs water tariffs would probably be increasing at a rate exceeding inflation.

“The changing climate means that the value of water has to be seen differently,” says dr Antony Turton, a private water expert. Instead of it being a resource that has to be bought from the department of water affairs, “it has to be seen as a risk development, much like climate change. Any future plans therefore have to involve a lowering of water intensity and trade-offs between the different sectors of the economy.

The psychology also has to change, says Turton. Every drop of water has to be seen as “borrowed” from the cycle, and then returned. “Water can’t just be poured out of a tap, paid for, and then forgotten. People have to understand that water cannot be created and what we have now  is as much as there ever will be”.

This will encourage a view of water as a resource that belongs equally to everyone, and will move people towards conserving and reusing it.

Farming out production to other countries is a global trend, say Margaret Catley-Carlson, patron of the Global Water Partnership. As propserity increases, people start accessing food that requires more water to produce. With each calorie we consume taking one litre of water to produce, and with a booming population, this is not sustainable in water-scarce regions, she said.

Already countries like Israel are stopping local production of water-intensive crops, preferring instead to import them. They are now choosing “the most sensible crop-per-drop”, she said. In the case of S.A this should mean a “serious look” at the viability of  thirsty crops such as sugarcane.

6 May 2012

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