Drought bites into sugar profits
09:36 (GMT+2), Fri , 09 September 2016
Porcia Mdhlovu, manager of Dumezulo farm, with some of the sugar cane severely affected by the drought. Photo: Retha Nel

Due to one of the most intense droughts in over a century, sugar-cane crops in the Onderberg have declined by 35% this season. This not only has a major effect on growers and consumers, but also mills like those of RCL Foods in Malalane and Komatipoort.

According to Dawie van Rooy, agricultural director of sugar at RCL Foods’ sugar and milling division, the two mills normally crush four million tons of cane per season, which produces 480 000 tons of sugar. A total of 1 300 growers deliver to the Nkomazi Mills with 41 500 hectares sugar cane under irrigation. Sixty-two per cent is delivered from land-reform beneficiaries.

Due to the decrease in cane production, the Komati Mill will close at the start of October and Malalane in middle November, instead of the usual mid-December.

During the 2014/15 rain season, only 85% of the long-term rain was received and in 2015/16, only about half. The Kwena, Driekoppies and Maguga dams, which feed the area, are at 26% and irrigators are under severe restrictions (about 25% of their usual allocation) to ensure the water lasts until the next rainfall.

After the below-normal rainfall patterns of El Niño, a normal rain season is expected from October. Weather experts forecast a weak La Niña, a weather pattern characterised by above-average rainfall, after which weather patterns will normalise, a state known as Enso.

According to Brian Jackson, specialist manager of water resources planning and operations at the Inkomati-Usuthu Catchment Management Agency, weather patterns could suppress spring rainfall in the country. However, normal rainfall has been forecast for Swaziland and the Onderberg, and farmers and other consumers are urged to keep an eye on the short-term 10-day forecasts. 

Due to the drought, farmers had to adapt their irrigation schedules to ensure that at least part of their crops received sufficient water. Van Rooy stated that the difficult decisions regarding irrigation were made with facts such as which fields or orchards were at the end of their life cycle, soil potential and the type of irrigation system in mind. Whether the severe restrictions on local farmers will be lifted once the rainy season starts, will depend on the amount of rainfall and how quickly water levels return to normal. 

Jackson stated that the various water authorities such as irrigation boards will monitor the situation closely.
A decline of 16 to 20% in sugar-cane crops is expected next year, with crop losses for this year and next year estimated at R1,35 billion. This will severely impact growers’ cash flow, but due to an increase in prices, growers should be able to recover from the drought. Van Rooy stated that they expected to have a normal season again in 2018, depending on the weather over the next season.


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