24 January 2005

Adapt Or Die, Farms Warned

As Cape Town's water storage dams drop to a five-year low, agricultural experts say climatic changes mean the face of agriculture in the Western Cape will have to change, and soon.

And Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool has warned that without these changes, the province's farmers run the risk of being overwhelmed by drought and international competition.

But a wine-growing expert said increasing temperatures were unlikely to have a serious impact on the wine industry, although wine styles might have to change.

Yesterday the City of Cape Town announced that the average level of dams supplying the region was 42.5% full, a five-year low for this time of year. This time last year the dams were at 60% full, in 2003 they were 79% full and in 2002 87% full.

While Steenbras upper was still 75% full, Vo'lvlei was 36% full, Theewaterskloof was 41%, Wemmershoek dam at 42.4%, and Steenbras Lower 64.9%.

The good news, for Cape Town's gardeners at least, is that the City of Cape Town has decided not to tighten water restrictions nor to set a more stringent water-saving target.

In September both the city and the Department of Water Affairs said a targeted saving of 30% would be necessary if dam levels dropped to 43%.

But last week the department's regional director, Rashied Khan, said the present 20% target would remain until the current cycle of restrictions ends in September.

Saleem Mowzer, the member of the mayoral committee responsible for trading services, said it would be pointless to introduce the 30% cut if Capetonians were struggling to achieve 20%.

The results of the more stringent restrictions introduced on January 1 are not yet available, but it is clear that if the drought continues, we may find ourselves in a much worse situation by June.

If last year's rainfall patterns continue, by June average dam levels will have sunk to just 14.6%, and after some winter rainfall would be up to just 25% by the end of the year.

The acting manager of the city's technical operating centre, John Potgieter, said levels of 14% would be difficult to recover from.

"Unless drastic measures are taken, this would put us into crisis."

Recent rainfall in the Western Cape has been between 50 and 75% below average.

Yesterday agricultural experts said the shift in rainfall patterns and longer dry periods would force the sector to adapt to fresh crops and new cultivars.

Grain and livestock farmers in various parts of the province were struggling to survive, and on some farms there is no available drinking water left, as boreholes are drying up.

Rasool said: "Not only should we adapt crops and livestock to available water resources, but we must also adapt to international competition. China is planting hectares and hectares of apples and oranges which will probably flood the international market in 10 years. Where will that leave South Africa? Agriculture will have to grow cultivars for niche markets.

"The more time we waste on making the changes, the greater the risk of being overwhelmed by drought and international competition."

Dr Pieter van Rooyen, provincial head of agriculture, said some areas were not suitable for the crops currently being grown there.

"For example the Sandveld, north-west of Piketberg, is a very high-risk area for wheat. Instead lupins - a form of fodder - should be planted there."

Van Rooyen said research by the department annually suggested farmers diversify crops on their land.

Professor Andr´┐Ż Agenbag, of the department of agronomy at the University of Stellenbosch, said researchers were always on the look-out for ways to keep up with climate changes.

Emphasis was also placed on the adaptation of production techniques and new crops.

"Researchers are looking at cultivars that are heat- and drought-resistant, and crops with a shorter growth period."

New crops being looked at included flax, coriander and various forms of peas and beans, canola (rape), and triticale - a hybrid cereal that is a cross between wheat and rye.

Boegoe, honeybush tea and other aromatic plants could be grown in mountainous areas.

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