The Food and Agriculture Organisation expects the country’s cereal production to drop by 78% by the time this year’s harvest is over, leaving thousands at the mercy of government’s emergency drought relief programme. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
The rains finally arrived, but they were too late. The ploughing period, during which government provides inputs such as tillage services, seeds and fertilisers, was extended, but it was too late.
Farmers who had craned their necks to the sky fruitlessly in November, December and January, raced to their fields with the stubborn hope only farmers have, but it was too late.
And this week, preliminary estimates of the carnage began to emerge.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expects that production of maize, sorghum and millet will fall 80% by the time the results of a disastrous season are measured in May.
“Harvesting of the 2018 cereal crops is expected to begin in April and cereal production is forecast to fall sharply to a well below-average level,” the agency said in an early warning research update.
“The decline would mostly be on account of unfavourable weather conditions, reflecting an uneven temporal distribution of seasonal rainfall, lower cumulative quantities and higher temperatures in early 2018.”
The organisation continues: “Despite some improvement in weather conditions since February, the reduced rains earlier in the season resulted in a contraction in cereal plantings and are expected to restrain yield potential.”
What the FAO is describing is the shock that local communal farmers received this season, when forecasts of healthy rains gradually gave way to growing horror, as an early season dry spell turned into a crisis.
Traditionally the planting season for cereals in Botswana starts in November, being heralded by the first rains known as ‘grass rains’, which trigger the slight greening of previously dry land. Most farmers begin ploughing after that or wait for the third round of rains.
Last season, hopes pumped up by the forecasts, farmers across the country waited for the grass rains, in vain. A prolonged dry spell stretched into January effectively upending plans for a bountiful harvest.
Experts believe climate change has led a ‘shifting’ of seasons, with the onset of the rain season occurring later than normal. Winters arrive earlier, are milder than normal and end quicker than before. “It’s quite obvious to everyone that the seasons have changed,” Department of Meteorological Services director, Thabang Botshoma says.
“Before, rains would start by early October, but now the norm is mid-November if we are lucky. Most of the time, it’s late November.”
That “onset of the rain season” change is extremely important for communal farmers, who watch for the grass rains to begin their ploughing activities. Get it wrong, and you get to sit in the heat, watching all of your efforts and resources go to waste, while the heavens refuse to open. Technically and according to the methodology applied by Met Services, the onset of the rain season is said to take place when at least 25 millimetres fall in 10 days, with another 20 millimetres in the following 14 days.
This season, that only happened in February and the sensitivities of the cropping season mean even sustained rains at that point are
“After December 21, we know that day length, or the hours available in a day decrease meaning the hours of sunlight the crops need reduces. “This reduction in day length as the months progress, also means the threat of frost sets in faster.”
The late onset of rains and quicker arrival of winter is the stuff of nightmares for farmers, but also a reality they will have to adapt around.
The “crops our farmers go for” being maize, sorghum and millet are particularly vulnerable to the shift in seasons and any changes in rainfall patterns. Farmers have thus far resisted government’s efforts to shift them to more drought-resistant crops or varieties.
Government has a keen interest in changing this mindset. Annually, the agricultural inputs programme costs an average of P600 million, while emergency drought relief programmes when crops fail can cost P500 million.
Local Government and Rural Development minister, Slumber Tsogwane, says drought assessment teams will begin their tours as they do every year, in April. In 2016, President Ian Khama fast-tracked the drought assessments after preliminary surveys indicated the collapse of arable farming activities across the country due to the El Niño phenomenon.
The emergency drought relief includes an array of interventions including support for the Agricultural Credit Guarantee Scheme, subsidies to farmers as well as nutritional support for vulnerable groups.
This year, the FAO believes a drought is almost certain to be declared again.
“Although the food security situation is likely to seasonally improve as the new supplies from the 2018 harvest become available, the likely decrease in cereal production may result in higher numbers of food insecure compared to the reduced level in 2017,” the UN agency’s researchers say. The cost to government, besides the emergency drought relief programmes, also comes in the form of higher grain imports for strategic reserves.
The FAO expects that the government and local millers will need to increase their reliance on South Africa for imports this year, which is traditionally the country’s largest supplier.
The good news, however, is that ample regional production of cereal means import prices will be modest, unlike in 2014, when a regional collapse of cereal production forced imports from as far as South America.
The forecasts for future crop seasons in Botswana means farmers will either have to change on their own, or have change forced upon them.
“We do 50 to 100 year projections on climate change and we are seeing that there will be temperature increases and changes in rainfall,” Botshoma says.
“We are geographically disadvantaged because we are surrounded by large water bodies. The oceans have more (heat) memory than land and take a long time to release heat back.” He adds: “I suspect we may not even need pans and stoves to fry our eggs, we will just put them in the sun.”