South Africa’s Drought: A Wake-up Call?

Agriculture: The biggest (and most wasteful) consumer of freshwater

water-shortageA study conducted by University of Twente researchers in the Netherlands has found that about 4 billion people worldwide are suffering from water shortage — driven by population increase, wasteful water consumption and increasing water demand for agriculture. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) predicts that two-thirds of the global population could suffer from water shortages by 2025. With agriculture consuming 70% of the world’s available freshwater but wasting about 60% of that through inefficient methods and faulty irrigation systems, smarter water management solutions for agriculture are a critical part of any long-term plan to resolve the water shortage challenge.[1]

The impact of climate change

Increasing population, wasteful water consumption and inefficient agricultural practices represent long-term, predictable stresses on the world’s supply of fresh water that, with sufficient resources and motivation, can be managed and controlled. A less predictable, less manageable but no less significant factor is the impact of climate change. The EPA sums it up succinctly when it informs us “As climate change warms the atmosphere, altering the hydrologic cycle, changes to the amount, timing, form, and intensity of precipitation will continue.” (our emphasis)

Although flooding or drought have a considerable impact on all freshwater sectors, both of these climate change phenomena have a particularly devastating effect on agriculture.

A case in point: South Africa

southafrica-agricultureIn mid-2015 El Nino triggered the worst drought on record in South Africa and there are no indications that it will let up in the foreseeable future. Farmers of cattle, sheep and goats have been urged by the government to cut the sizes of their herds as the drought has scorched grazing land and the 2016 corn harvest – a staple food in the entire region – is expected to fall 25% from the previous year. With five out of nine South African provinces already declared disaster zones, agriculture lobbyists are pressuring the government to declare a national disaster, which would release emergency relief funds to the many farmers who are on the brink of going bankrupt.[2]

According to the ratings firm Moody’s, the drought not only threatens the economic stability of the farming sector but risks tipping an already weak economy into recession as rising agricultural imports feed into rising inflation.[3] Some sources say that food prices may rise 20% or more this year, putting upward pressure on overall inflation, which rose to 5.2% in December (2015) from 4.8% in November.[2]

Regional repercussions – and opportunities

South Africa and Zambia, which are Africa’s biggest corn producers, may be expected to increase their traditional exports to neighboring Zimbabwe whose own corn harvest is forecast to be even smaller than usual this year due to the drought. Yet, as noted above, the drought is predicted to reduce South Africa’s 2016 corn harvest by 25% and Zambia’s 2016 harvest is estimated to drop by 30% to the smallest since 2009.[4]

Drought and other threats to the supply of freshwater for drinking and agriculture have accelerated water sustainability programs in other parts of the world. Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud of southern Africa’s current crisis is that the responsible bodies at all levels — provincial, national, regional — will be compelled to institute long-term, strategic measures to ensure the stable and sustainable water management that is so closely intertwined with the food chain.

The Arad Group, in cooperation with its strategic partners, is proud to be the supplier of cutting-edge agricultural water measuring and monitoring products to South African farmers — and to farmers around the globe.


[1] Katherine Derla, 4 Billion People Face Water Shortage: Rising Populations, Agriculture Drive Water Demand, Tech Times, February 15, 2016
[2] Veronica Brown and Zandi Shabalala, Trouble ahead for South Africa’s Agriculture sector, The African Report, February 4, 2016
[3] Drought pushing South Africa to the brink of recession – Moody’s, The African Report, February 16, 2016
[4] Tshepiso Mokhema, Drought-stricken South Africa under pressure to feed Zimbabwe, Bloomberg News, February 17, 2016


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