Drought Alert in South Africa

Concern continues regarding the food security situation in southern Africa, with a  special alert from the Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture (GIEWS) citing ongoing dry weather that could significantly impact 2016 harvests throughout the region. Southern Africa’s rainy season typically lasts from October through April, with around 75 percent of annual precipitation occurring between November and March. So far this year, however, the start of the rainy season has been delayed due to the El Niño weather system, and what precipitation has occurred since October has been below average. These dry conditions have delayed planting in large portions of the region, negatively impacting the development of early-planted 2016 crops.

Five provinces in South Africa’s main cereal-production regions have already been declared disaster drought areas. Other countries are taking steps to prevent their agricultural lands from reaching similar crisis levels; in Lesotho, the government has issued a national drought mitigation plan. Water restrictions have been put in place in Swaziland to try to conserve already low reservoir levels.

Meteorologists are predicting that the below average rains will likely continue between December and March for most countries in the region; this low rainfall could be compounded by above average temperatures. These dry conditions are expected to negatively impact planted areas and lower yields due to shorter growing periods. In South Africa, for example, preliminary maize planting indicators suggest a 4 percent year-on-year decrease in area planted to maize. As this country is a major maize exporter in the region, reduced South African yields could impact food security in neighboring importing countries.


Crop losses could further hurt farmers by lowering their saleable production and thus their purchasing power, making it harder for them to buy needed agricultural inputs. Governments in several countries are stepping up their input support programs to assist farmers in this scenario; Malawi and Zambia have expanded their input supply programs to cover 1.5 million and 1 million farmers, respectively.

These anticipated reduced 2016 production levels come on the heels of below average 2015 cereal output and already stressed food security conditions. In 2015, maize production declined by 27 percent due to poor weather conditions; sub-regional maize production has fallen below aggregate consumption for the first time in seven years. According to a national Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC) 2015 3valuations, the number of vulnerable people throughout the region for 2015 is estimated at about 6.3 million, up by over 3 million from 2014 (these estimates exclude Angola, Madagascar, and South Africa). While exports from South Africa and Zambia have satisfied over 50 percent of the region’s domestic maize import needs, a second consecutive poor harvest could pose a significant threat to food security. (Ethiopia is also facing significant food security threats due to drought. Read the latest from FEWs.net as well as an analysis of whether Ethiopia's drought will result in famine.)

Concerns over weather and production are impacting prices as well as supply. Maize prices in October and November rose well above the prices seen just a year earlier, for both retail and wholesale prices. In South Africa, wholesale price increases have been driven by tight supplies due to the poor 2015 harvest, uncertain production outlooks for 2016, and depreciating currencies. In Zambia, recent retail price increases were also driven by stronger export demand from other countries suffering from lowered production. Lesotho and Swaziland, both import-dependent countries, saw stable maize meal prices in recent months, but those prices are still significantly higher than those seen last year, reflecting higher import prices and lower domestic production.

Other parts of Africa, particularly the Horn of Africa, are facing the opposite problem, with heavy flooding expected. For more information, read a full regional update on El Niño-related and weather-related conditions throughout Africa south of the Sahara. 

Follow full coverage of the 2015-2016 El Niño cycle, both globally and regionally, with the Food Security Portal:

El Niño Raises Concerns about Food Security as Millions Face Threat of Drought, Floods

High Temps and Dry Conditions Delay Planting, Raise Production Concerns

India Experiences Driest Monsoon in Six Years

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: Alex Berger