Drought preparation: where to start

It’s not about pessimism, but planning. We must plan each crop as if this season will be our worst ever.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

I was shocked when I first saw the map that accompanies this week’s column. Drawn up by Dr Peter Ashton of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, it illustrates South Africa’s unfortunate fate as far as rainfall is concerned and highlights the importance of drought preparation.

READ Hydroponic water requirements

Note the frightening rainfall distribution pattern where, moving northwards, precipitation decreases from 450mm/ year in the southernmost point of the country, to less than 100mm/year in the Northern Cape.

Good drought preparation

Cruelly, it then rises to more than a 1 000mm/ year in Zambia.

Moving westwards from the eastern seaboard of KwaZulu-Natal, we see levels of 800mm to 900mm/year dropping off to 100mm/year. The worldwide average level of 860mm/year is indicated by the red line. Almost all of the SADC region, including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho, is on the wrong side of the line.

Dr Peter Ashton's map of the differing rainfall patterns
Dr Peter Ashton’s map of the differing rainfall patterns in South Africa. Note the red line indicating world average rainfall. Courtesy of PJ Ashton, CSIR

South Africa’s average is a mere 497mm/ year, only marginally better than Botswana’s 400mm/ year and Namibia’s 254mm/year. This map depicts what we already know all too well: we live and farm in a dry region of the world where drought preparation is essential.

The Southern Cape has escaped this year’s drought; it has been the turn of the Free State, Northern Cape and KZN to bear the brunt. As these areas produce the crucial national staples of maize, soya and sugar, the plight of our farmers this time around seems to be getting a little more attention.

Farmers are on their own
But what is really new? We’ve been through this many times before. Eventually it will rain; the drought will be broken. But then, as sure as night follows day, there will be another one, and the cycle will repeat itself.

There is really only one thing you can do: approach each season as if it’s going to be a drought year, and do everything you can to limit the damage. It’s called risk mitigation and here are some of the steps that you should be considering:

  • Build up a cash nest-egg. Aim for one year’s operating cost in the bank. It sounds like a great deal, but I can tell you from experience that when you have a sum like this stashed away, you will sleep far more soundly and be around to fight the next drought;
  • Seek commercial insurance for at least part of the crop;
  • Place some of your lands under an efficient irrigation system. Build dams and drill boreholes;
  • Become a conservation farmer and improve the water-holding capacity of your soil;
  • Plant drought-tolerant varieties on all or some of the land;
  • Invest in livestock able to make use of drought-damaged crops;
  • Diversify into high-value, low-water use alternative crops.

The days of government coming to your aid are over. You’re on your own, and if your farm survives this drought, there will be another.

Be prepared.