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Frequently asked questions about South Africa’s drought


FAQ1: When does low rainfall become a drought?

Defining a drought is not that easy and it often depends on who you ask, the South African Weather Service explains on its website.

However, climate information manager for the weather service Elsa de Jager told Africa Check that if a specific area in South Africa receives less than 75% of its normal rainfall, they consider that area to be experiencing a meteorological drought.

De Jager added that “it can be safely assumed that a shortfall of 20% from normal rainfall will cause crop and water shortfalls in many regions accompanied by social and economic hardship”.

Although South Africa’s average rainfall has been low, only certain areas of the country are experiencing a meteorological drought, media liaison for South Africa’s department of water and sanitation, Sputnik Ratau told Africa Check. This is because South Africa has “different hydrological zones, meaning that whereas some parts may be experiencing severe drought, others may not”.

So far five provinces have been declared drought disaster areas: Mpumalanga, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the Free State. Some parts of the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, and Western Cape are severely affected by drought’s effects as well. (Note: View this map to see the situation in December 2015.)

FAQ2: What caused the drought?

 Residents of Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal prepare to collect water from a free water point sponsored by concerned citizens in November 2015. Photo: AFP /MUJAHID SAFODIEN Residents of Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal prepare to collect water from a free water point sponsored by concerned citizens in November 2015. Photo: AFP /MUJAHID SAFODIEN" />

While drought is common to Southern Africa, associate professor in the
department of oceanography at the University of Cape Town Dr Mathieu Rouault explained that the two main causes of the current drought are El Niño and climate change.

El Niño is a rise in oceanic temperatures in the South Pacific that affects weather patterns across the globe and results in a reduction in rainfall in Southern Africa. Rouault and a colleague published a scientific study that showed that  “8 out of 10 of the worst droughts in the past 100 years happened during El Niño”.

Secondly, the country’s overall weather patterns, according to Rouault, are also further impacted by global climate change, leading to the abnormally high temperatures South Africa has been experiencing.

READ: FACTSHEET - Why Africa is vulnerable to climate change

FAQ3: Has South Africa really received the least rainfall in a century last year?

According to the South African Weather Service, South Africa received the lowest rainfall between January and December 2015 since the recording of rainfall began in 1904.

Since 1904, rainfall in all nine provinces has averaged 608 mm per year, while in 2015 South Africa received only an average of 403 mm (66% of the annual average). Previously, the lowest rainfall received in a year was in 1945 when South Africa received 437 mm (72%).

Because drought is experienced as a continuous period of low rainfall, it is important to measure it accordingly. De Jager said that “although the annual total rainfall for South Africa for the months of January to December 2015 was the lowest since 1904, the four-year period of 1930 to 1933 might still be the driest continuous period experienced in South Africa”. The average rainfall for those years was 519 mm annually (85%).

It’s important to keep in mind that these averages were calculated for South Africa as a whole. Some areas could have been very dry while others were not.

For example, the Eastern Cape has had above average rainfall between 2010 and 2015, De Jager said, while the Free State has had below average rainfall since 2012 and has been declared a disaster area.

(Note: Since 1921, the weather service has also been measuring rainfall according to 94 rainfall districts throughout the country. When the average for the rainfall districts is calculated, South Africa received only 330 mm of rain in 2015. The average since 1921 is 500 mm.)  

FAQ4: So is drought simply defined by a lack of rainfall?

Meteorological drought in itself is not a disaster, the authors of Drought and Water Crises: Science Technology and Management Issues, Donald Wilhite and Margie Buchanan-Smith, wrote: “Whether it becomes a disaster depends on its impact on local people and the environment. Therefore to understand drought we have to understand it as both a natural and social phenomenon.”

In addition to meteorological drought, there are three main types of drought.

Agricultural drought is defined by a lack of soil water to support the growth of crops, caused by too little rainfall, whether it meets the requirement of a meteorological drought or not.

Hydrological drought is caused by the low availability of surface water, such as low water levels in dams, rivers, lakes and other reservoirs. This can be caused by a meteorological drought or high water use, for instance.

Socioeconomic drought occurs when human activity is affected by any type of drought. This may be in the form of lack of water supply, grazing land or food.

Professor of agrometeorology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Michael Savage, told Africa Check that “to determine these types of drought requires an intensive study using data for the whole of South Africa. I do not think anyone has undertaken such a study yet”.

FAQ5: How has the drought affected agriculture?

The head of the Agricultural Business Chamber, John Purchase, told Africa Check that currently effects on agriculture can be seen in the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the North West “as summer crops, especially maize, could not be planted in many areas, or plantings were severely damaged by the drought and heat”.

Soya, sorghum, groundnuts and sunflower crops have also been affected, which has negatively impacted South Africa’s food security. Purchase told Africa Check that while South Africa usually exports maize “it is clear that South Africa will have to import roughly 5 to 6 million tons of maize (half white and half yellow) to meet its internal demand”.

Purchase continued to say that “livestock farmers also have no or little grazing and fodder for their livestock while drinking water for animals is a problem in many areas in these provinces”.

This will all result in an increase in food prices in South Africa over the next few months, Purchase predicted.

FAQ6: Is South Africa’s water supply threatened?

The director of water resource planning systems in the department of water and sanitation, Dr Benson Mwaka, told Africa Check that the drought has affected the whole country “resulting in water shortages with associated socio-economic sufferingsthough not to the same degree”.

The KwaZulu-Natal region has been hit the hardest in this regard while the Eastern Cape has been the least affected, he said. The department’s media liaison Ratau added that it was mainly areas with little or no water resource storage facilities and that was affected most by the drought that experienced water shortages.  

Mwaka also told Africa Check that the country’s water storage is under pressure. South Africa’s dams were 55.4% full on 11 January 2016, although it is still some way off from the 35-year low point of 34% reached in November 1983.

FAQ7: Is this the worst drought SA has ever had?

Professor at the Wits Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute, Bob Scholes, explained to Africa Check that the current drought is “one of the biggest drought events in living memory”. However, he said the extent of the severity of the drought is difficult to measure because it is not over yet.

Similarly, Savage said that more research needs to be done to definitively compare the severity of this drought with previous ones. It is therefore not possible to say yet whether this is the worst drought in 23, 30 or 34 years.

FAQ8: How will we know when the drought is over?

It is usually only after the fact that one can determine what kind of drought it was and when it has ended, Scholes told Africa Check. He said that data on rainfall and the effects of a drought usually takes a lot of time to be collected and analysed. Therefore knowing when a drought ended occurs some time after it was broken.

“The drought is not over yet, guys,” Scholes said.

Have you seen a claim about South Africa’s drought that needs checking? Leave a comment below or tweet us: @AfricaCheck.

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