Botswana’s rains were 50% less than what they should have been.

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A survey released last week by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) confirms what many around the country already fear: the poor rains in the first half of the season and their inconsistency in the second have driven away farmers from the fields, blighted crops and left livestock teetering on the brink.

While in the 2016/17 season, a record 100,250 farmers planted a record 384,250 hectares, this year’s El Nino effect dried up the first half of the rain season, keeping even the most optimistic of farmers off the fields.“Since the start of the 2018/19 cropping season in October, anomalous dry conditions have developed across parts of Southern Africa, with more intense moisture deficits registered in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa,” reads the FAO report.

“Although there are a few months remaining in the cropping season, with the main harvest period usually commencing in April, the impact of the reduced rains is expected to have caused a contraction in the area planted and lowered yield prospects, particularly in the aforementioned areas.”

For Botswana, the FAO researchers estimate that between October and November, the rain deficit was about 65% below average. While the rains in December brought down the deficit to about 40%, the dry spell’s effects are still being felt.

“Although precipitation volumes picked up in December and early January, recuperating vegetation conditions, the overall reduced cumulative seasonal rains are expected to have resulted in a contraction in the area sown and shortened the growing period for crops, diminishing yield prospects.

“The reduced seasonal rains, notably in the western portions, have led to a deterioration in vegetation conditions, negatively affecting pasture productivity and quality, as well as diminishing water resources for livestock.

“A continuation of these conditions would likely inhibit livestock production and raise mortality rates in 2019, with an adverse impact on food availability and income levels.” However, the FAO reckons that Botswana is better placed to handle the looming disaster on the fields, as the bulk of the country’s cereal requirements are imported from South Africa.

That rod, however, was kicked out from under the country’s hand this week, as grain farmers in South Africa announced they needed at least

R3 billion (P2.3 billion) to haul their sector out of a devastating drought.

The country’s two major maize producing regions, the North West and Free State, recently announced that their planted hectarages were down to an average of 65%, while national production would be roughly equal to the disastrous 2015/16 season when mass imports were required.

Last week Agri SA, the main farmers’ body, unveiled the results of a December

2018 survey showing severe drought in five out of that country’s nine provinces. The outlook for four provinces, which include the North West and Free State, were listed as “critical”.

“More than 50% of respondents (to the survey) also indicated some form of depression, anxiety or other behavioural health issues experienced by members,” reads Agri SA’s survey.

“Over 50% were reported to have communicated the need to retrench farm workers as a result of prevailing drought conditions.

“Approximately 70% of the respondents with livestock as their main commodity indicated that water availability is currently at severe stress levels.”

Locally, millers have warned that cereal prices are under pressure, as the dependency on imports from South Africa means the shortages there are driving prices higher. On the shop floors, specials for maize meal were last in the shops in October, as prices have climbed since then. At the height of the devastating 2015/16 drought, a 12.5kg bag of maize meal shot up from about P52 to P108. Currently, the same bag is retailing at above P50, having risen slightly from the mid-P40s in the middle of last year.

Prices of the national staple, sorghum, are generally stable, although millers expect pressure to rise in line with the lower regional production, particularly in South Africa. Annually, the local national demand for sorghum is about 80,000, with local production accounting for just over 50% and the balance imported from South Africa.

This week, the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board (BAMB) revealed that the Strategic Grain Reserves are holding 30,000 metric tonnes of sorghum, 2,000 tonnes of pulses (various legumes) and no white maize.

By policy, BAMB is supposed to keep 30,000 tonnes of sorghum, 30,000 tonnes of maize and 10,000 tonnes of pulses for national food security purposes.

“We will provide information on how many farmers we have contracted and how much we expect them to deliver, at the end of March,” BAMB spokesperson, Kushata Modiakgotla said, when questioned about the state of affairs at the national silos.

All indicators, however, are that local farmers will have little to show by the time of the harvest. Those who planted after the late December rains are gambling with the arrival of the evening frost in late March, which will cripple their crops.

Those who gave up altogether are scrambling to identify alternative income streams.

Government, meanwhile, is preparing its annual assessments of the fields and kraals, which in turn will likely lead to yet another declaration of drought by July, with the resultant hundreds of millions of pula in unbudgeted support for the victims of the skies.