‘Weak’ La Niña means more rainfall to support South African crops

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A weak La Niña suggests “slightly” above normal rainfall that will benefit South African agriculture during the summer.

  • South African forecasters predict above-normal rainfall this summer, linked to a “weak” La Niña.
  • South Africa could have a “good” agricultural season if rainfall is moderate, an economist has said.
  • But the IMF has warned that climate change threatens food insecurity in the sub-Saharan African region.
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South Africa can expect above normal rainfall from mid-summer, which bodes well for agricultural production amid fears that climate change will intensify the food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an agency of the United Nations, predicted earlier in September that the weather event in the Pacific Ocean, La Niña, would persist for a third consecutive year – which also happens to be the first of this century. . La Niña is associated with increased rainfall in some regions, such as South Africa, and extreme heat and drought in others, such as East Africa and South America.

The WMO pointed out that in 2020/21, La Niña has altered the rainy seasons with consequences for agriculture and people’s livelihoods. In parts of South Africa, heavy rainfall was linked to crop damage earlier this year.

The University of Pretoria’s Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology, however, predicts “weak” La Niña conditions for most of 2022/23 – over the summer. “At this point, there is an increased likelihood of an above normal rainfall season around mid-summer over the greater summer rainfall region,” the forecast reads.

Wandile Sihlobo, Chief Economist of the South African Chamber of Agricultural Affairs, interpreted the “weak” declaration of La Niña to mean that there would be moderate rainfall. Moderate rains would be “slightly” above normal and lead to a good agricultural season for crops and livestock, he said.

Higher rainfall, especially in October and January, will help retain soil moisture to allow seeds to germinate by February, he said. Farmers often plant major crops such as oilseeds, corn, soybeans, sorghum and dry beans during this period.

READ | UN weather agency predicts rare La Nina ‘triple dip’ in 2022

Sihlobo, however, stressed that a repeat of excessive rains and extreme heat linked to a “harsh” La Niña would be “disastrous” for agriculture in all regions. Heavy rains can particularly damage crops, and wet conditions expose livestock to a range of diseases – which South Africa has fallen victim to, he added. More recently, South Africa has had foot-and-mouth disease in some areas.

South Africa would not be immune to the impacts of droughts in other regions.

A drought in South America – where Brazil and Argentina account for 14% of global corn production and 15% of global soybean production – would have a negative impact on agricultural production in the region. Lower-than-normal production levels would cause global food prices to rise, Sihlobo said. “This [a drought] is a global concern because South America is a global player in grains and oilseeds. But for now, the International Grains Council expects a “good harvest” from the region for 2022/23, he noted.

East Africa’s agricultural sector, meanwhile, has been hit by multiple problems – drought, crops and infestations. According to WMO, in 2021 maize yields in Kenya are estimated to be between 42% and 70% below average due to prolonged droughts. If it is hit by another (La Niña-related) drought, food security will remain a major issue, Sihlobo added.

In the future, if nothing is done to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that raise global temperatures, extreme weather events linked to climate change will worsen, with ripple effects on the productivity of other sectors such as agriculture.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in its article, Climate change and chronic food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, released on Thursday, warned that climate change is intensifying food insecurity. Extreme events such as droughts, floods, high temperatures, cyclones and sea level rise damage crops and also disrupt food distribution and transportation systems, he explained. Other shocks, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, have worsened food insecurity in the sub-Saharan Africa region – which has increased by at least 30% since 2020. 2022, 12% of the population is highly malnourished and unable to meet basic food consumption needs,” the newspaper read.

WMO, in its State of the Global Climate 2021, points out that rising temperatures have reduced agricultural productivity growth in Africa by more than a third (34%) since 1961. This trend is expected to continue in the future, which could lead to food insecurity and malnutrition. “A global warming of 1.5°C is expected to be accompanied by a 9% decline in maize yield in West Africa and 20 to 60% in wheat yield in southern and northern Africa”, reads- we in the report.

The IMF has also warned that rising temperatures – in developing countries – are associated with lower agricultural productivity. It predicts that in sub-Saharan Africa, crop yields will decline by 5% to 17% by 2050.

A third of global droughts occur in sub-Saharan Africa, the IMF said.

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