A weak La Niña suggests “slightly” above normal rainfall, which will benefit South Africa’s agriculture this summer.

  • South African forecasters are predicting more than normal precipitation in the summer, which is associated with a “weak” La Niña.
  • South Africa could be in for a “good” farming season if rainfall is moderate, an economist says.
  • But the IMF has warned that climate change threatens food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
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South Africa could expect above-normal rainfall from mid-summer, boding well for agricultural production amid fears that climate change will exacerbate food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an agency of the United Nations, earlier in September predicted that La Niña weather in the Pacific Ocean would persist for the third year in a row – and also the first year 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 WMA highlighted that in 2020/21, La Niña changed the rainfall seasons with consequences for agriculture and livelihoods. In parts of South Africa, heavy rainfall was linked to crop damage earlier this year.

However, the Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology at the University of Pretoria is predicting “weak” La Niña conditions for most of 2022/23 – into the summer. “At this stage, there is an increased likelihood of an above-normal precipitation season through mid-summer in the greater summer precipitation area,” the forecast said.

Wandile Sihloba, chief economist at the South African Chamber of Agribusiness, interpreted the “weak” La Niña statement as meaning there would be moderate rainfall. Moderate rains will be “slightly” above normal and lead to a good agricultural season for crops and livestock, he explained.

More rainfall, especially in October and January, will be beneficial to retain moisture in the soil so that the seeds germinate by February, he explained. During this period, farmers often plant staple crops such as oilseeds, corn, soybeans, sorghum, and dry beans.

READ | UN weather agency predicts rare ‘triple dips’ of La Niña in 2022

Sihloba, however, stressed that a repeat of the excessive rains and extreme heat associated with a “severe” La Niña would be “catastrophic” for agriculture in the regions. Heavy rainfall can be particularly damaging to crops, and wet conditions expose livestock to a range of diseases – something South Africa has faced, he added. More recently, South Africa has struggled with foot-and-mouth disease in some regions.

South Africa is not immune to the effects of drought in other regions.

Drought in South America, where Brazil and Argentina account for 14% of global corn production and 15% of global soybean production, will adversely affect crop production in the region. Lower production levels will lead to higher global food prices, Sihloba explained. “This [a drought] is a worldwide concern because South America is a global player when it comes to grains and oilseeds.” But for now, the International Grains Council expects a “good harvest” in the region in 2022/23, he noted.

Meanwhile, the agricultural sector in East Africa has suffered from many problems – drought, crop failure and disease. According to the WMO, maize yields in Kenya were 42-70% below average in 2021 due to prolonged droughts. If it suffers another drought (related to La Niña), then food security will remain a major challenge, Sihloba added.

Looking ahead, if nothing is done to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global temperature rise, the extreme weather events associated with climate change will worsen and this will have a ripple effect on the productivity of other sectors such as agriculture.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its article Climate change and chronic food security in sub-Saharan Africa, released Thursday, warns that climate change is increasing food insecurity. Extreme events such as drought, floods, high temperatures, cyclones and rising sea levels damage crops and disrupt food distribution and transportation systems, it explained. Other upheavals, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, have worsened food security in sub-Saharan Africa, which has increased by at least 30% since 2020. “In 2022, 12% of the population will suffer from severe malnutrition and will not be able to meet their basic nutritional needs,” the newspaper said.

SMO, in its own State of the Global Climate 2021, highlights that rising temperatures have caused agricultural productivity growth in Africa to drop by more than a third (34%) since 1961. This trend is expected to continue in the future – threatening food insecurity and malnutrition. “Global warming of 1.5°C is projected to be accompanied by a 9% reduction in maize yields in West Africa and a 20-60% reduction in wheat yields in southern and northern Africa,” the report said.

The IMF also warned that rising temperatures in developing countries are linked to declining agricultural productivity. Crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa are projected to decline by 5-17% by 2050.

One third of the world’s droughts occur in sub-Saharan Africa, notes the IMF.

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