Too little rain in South Africa

Drought dries up corn output; staple food at risk

Dead fish on the bed of the almost-completely-dry Lake St Lucia in South Africa's iSimangaliso Wetland Park. A lack of rain means the upcoming corn crop will be 27 per cent lower than last year's
Dead fish on the bed of the almost-completely-dry Lake St Lucia in South Africa's iSimangaliso Wetland Park. A lack of rain means the upcoming corn crop will be 27 per cent lower than last year'sPHOTO: REUTERS

SOWETO (South Africa) • On a recent evening at Esther Thobagale's modest four-room house in this township outside Johannesburg, she was preparing pap, the traditional cornmeal porridge that is a staple food of low-income families across South Africa.

A few days before, Ms Thobagale, who lives with her daughter and two grandsons, learnt that she was going to have to pay much more for cornmeal - 80 rand (S$7.20) for a two-week supply, up from 50 rand.

That's a barely affordable increase for an unemployed grandmother who supports the household on a government pension and other income totalling 1,730 rand a month. "I'm now forced to cut down on non-essentials, like treats for my grandkids," she said.

South Africa has suffered through its worst drought in decades. With little rain last year during the start of the growing season, the country's biggest crop, corn, has been hit hard.

Although rainfall amounts have increased in the past few weeks, the government estimates that the soon-to-be-harvested crop will be 27 per cent lower than last year's.

The World Bank estimates that the drought has pushed 50,000 more South Africans below the poverty line of about US$32 (S$43) a month.

Economist Wandile Sihlobo at corn farmers' lobby group Grain SA, said current estimates are that South Africa would be forced to import more than 4 million tonnes of corn from Mexico and Brazil and other South American countries.

Mr Shukri Ahmed, an official with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said corn yields were down in early 2015, too. He said that South Africa, which grows more corn than any other country in Southern Africa had also suffered from last year's crop decline, wiping out any surplus available for export. This puts other countries' populations at risk.

The drought has caused economic hardship for South Africa's farmers as well. Mr Thean Geldenhuys, a corn farmer, said his income was down 75 per cent and he has had to turn away the seasonal workers who come to his farm every year.

"It's sad because most of these people won't go away," he said. "They are outside my farm every day hoping to be employed. There is simply no work and no money to pay them."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Too little rain in South Africa Drought dries up corn output; staple food at risk'. Print Edition | Subscribe