Social Stability

An unwelcome ‘Christmas guest’ on its way to SA

Arrival of an unwelcome guest

The success of the abolishment of South Africa’s agricultural control boards is about to be tested as Mother Nature is in the process of dumping dry tinder on the country’s simmering sociopolitical and -economic household.

There is wide consensus among climate researchers and meteorologists that our planet is caught in the early stages of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño.

They also agree that it looks set to be the most severe event of its kind in living memory, the previous most severe one having occurred in 1997-98.

The phenomenon, as we report elsewhere, got its name from Peruvian seamen observing the regular appearance around Christmastime of a warm sea current off that country’s coast. They called the phenomenon El Niño (little boy) after the boy child Jesus Christ.

In short, El Niño is part of the extremely complicated natural rhythm of the ocean-atmosphere system, as much as winter cold or summer thunderstorms or any other weather phenomenon. It drains the west Pacific of heat built up over several years by the trade winds and in the process impacting on global weather patterns.

It is part of a megacycle known as the Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The El Niño event of 1997-98 was the first to be scientifically monitored from beginning to end. It produced severe droughts in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Peru, in turn, experienced very heavy rains and flooding and in the US California had well above average winter rainfalls.

This year, like Australia and most of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has to prepare for the likelihood of what one Australian scientist has described as “megadroughts”.

This comes as much of Southern African countries, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, are already experiencing the impact of drought conditions, as are SA’s KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State and North West provinces, with disaster areas already having been declared.

Historical perspective

As far back as 1893 Charles Todd suggested droughts in India and Australia tended to occur at the same time. Norman Lockyer noted the same in 1904, while an El Niño connection with flooding was reported in 1895.

The conditions accompanying ENSO events, occurring at between two and seven year intervals, have been recorded for at least the past 300 years. Scientists have also uncovered evidence of El Niño events dating back 10 000 years.

Over time there has also been plenty of evidence of how it has impacted directly and indirectly on various economic sectors besides agriculture and food production.

For example, the El Niño event of 1911 saw many seabirds leave the islands off the Peruvian coast, something which nearly destroyed the thriving guano (bird dung) industry – the dung at the time being a much sought-after fertiliser.

Throughout history, over millenniums, El Niño has also had serious direct socio-economic and indirect secondary sociopolitical effects in various parts of the world. An article on Wikipedia, titled Cultural history and prehistoric information, for instance claim:

“El Niño affected pre-Columbian Incas and may have led to the demise of the Moche and other pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures. A recent study suggests a strong El Niño effect between 1789 and 1793 caused poor crop yields in Europe, which in turn helped touch off the French Revolution. The extreme weather produced by El Niño in 1876–77 gave rise to the most deadly famines of the 19th century. The 1876 famine alone in northern China killed up to 13 million people.”

How ready is SA?

Against this background it is prudent to pose the question: Does South Africa have the necessary plans in place to deal with the effects of what promises to be an extended and taxing visit by an unwelcome ‘Christmas guest’ called El Niño.

In the past, especially post the 1980s, one of the set of instruments at the disposal of the government of the day to deal with natural disasters, like severe droughts, was the so-called agricultural control boards.

The history of the boards dates back to the aftermath of the 1930s’ Great Depression.

In 1937 a Marketing Act created the framework for statutory interventions in agricultural marketing. This included the capacity to create some price stability for both producers and consumers and for a ‘Joseph’s policy’ to ensure stockpiles of products like maize being available during harvest failures and for funding subsidies to ensure the survival of farmers.

In the face of changing macro-economic conditions, reforms to agricultural policy were initiated in the early 1980s to bring it more in line with a free-market environment. Among other things, government subsidies of control boards were phased out.

During the 1990s government intervention was further scaled down and pricing left to the free market to deal with as South Africa became a founding member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) at the so-called Uruguay Round.

By 1994, however, most of the bigger control boards were still in place. The new, ANC-controlled government decided that the boards were not the appropriate instruments for them to protect consumers and/or to assist small and emerging farmers. It chose the route of accelerated deregulation of the sector.

According a briefing paper published by the international development consulting firm Oxford Policy Management (OPM) in 2000, the results of the government’s choice up to that point were positive.

It, however, also cautioned that “…it is a question of when, not if, South Africa has its next drought. The effectiveness of the millers’ price risk management activities, and the level of competition in the milling industry, are key factors if consumers of maize meal are to be insulated from price volatility.”

That time has come. The president of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, Theo de Jager, has warned that subsistence farmers will be worst affected by the rapid rise in global temperatures. The looming El-Niño event has already caused arid conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, putting further strain on the continent’s highly rain-dependent agricultural industry.

Are plans in place?

That the government is aware of the looming dangers, is evident from not only the already declared disaster areas, but also from Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane saying at the recent World Water Week meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, that the drought currently affecting South Africa is far from over.

She, however, mostly talked about interventions like the provision of water in rural areas and informal settlements through water tankers, and water restrictions to ensure better water demand management and supply in areas affected by the drought.

But it should be kept in mind that El Niño is likely to impact directly on the poor masses in the form of increased food prices. And it comes at a time when, according to an article by consulting economist Cees Bruggemans and professor Willie Esterhuyse, economically “at least 1-in-3 people are not at all participating (unemployed or discouraged) and another 1-in-3 only marginally favoured by a little work, or only a little income”.

Plans being made, if they are indeed being made, should also take note of the role food prices played in North Africa’s ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.

by Piet Coetzer

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