News and updates from the continent

South Africa’s drought intensifies: Heat rises, no rain

South Africa’s drought intensifies: Heat rises, no rain

Nov 11, 2015

10 November 2015 ~ Rand Water, which supplies Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni with drinking water, has announced that water restrictions will begin immediately owing to “increased demand caused by persistent high temperatures”.

“The lack of rainfall in Gauteng is exacerbating the situation. The high water demand will cause localised problems in the City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane and the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality.”

The restrictions are being implemented until further notice and mean no excess outside use of water is permitted between 6am and 6pm. (including watering gardens with hosepipes, sprinkler systems, washing vehicles with hosepipes and filling swimming pools)

The announcement comes as the entire country moves into the grips of the worst drought in 23 years. The past two droughts coincided with El Niño weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean, which warms the world’s largest body of water and creates drought in much of the southern hemisphere.

Its appearance in 1982 and 1991 led to two year-long droughts across South Africa.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) warned last month that El Niño would add to the damage being done by a warming climate. Its research said that “dramatic increases in the number of heatwave days and high fire-danger days, and reduced soil-moisture availability, are consistently projected”.

The researchers said this year’s El Niño, which warms the Eastern Pacific and leads to floods and drought worldwide, had already increased sea temperatures in that part of the world by 2°C. This would only increase and would probably break records for ocean temperatures in that part of the world.

As a result, the team predicted that this year’s summer would be the hottest South Africa had ever experienced.

The South African Weather Service warned in early September that “extremely dry and hot conditions” were likely to persist throughout the summer. The driving force behind this was an unusually strong El Niño, it said.

Groups such as NASA have been releasing data that shows the past 12 months were the hottest such period ever recorded and that September was probably the hottest September on record.

Research released earlier in September by the CSIR said El Niño would decrease rainfall by up to 150mm on average. South Africa’s average rainfall is around 450mm a year.

This has traditionally pushed South Africa to engineer itself out of water problems. Large-scale water transfer schemes take water from where it rains the most to catchments where there is little rain.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme was built to supply Gauteng and agricultural areas in the surrounding provinces with water. The second phase of the scheme is under construction, but has already been delayed by at least two years.

“Many parts of the country have either reached or are fast approaching the point at which all of the financially viable freshwater resources are fully utilised and where building new dams will not address the challenges,” the department of water affairs said in its 2013 strategy report.

With the national drought meaning water cannot be pumped from elsewhere, five provinces have already been declared disaster drought areas, with rainfall in the most recent planting season coming in much lower than expected.

The drought has exacerbated pressures that are already hitting the farming community and neighbouring countries, which normally export to South Africa in times of drought, have also been hard hit.

The World Food Programme’s most recent bulletin said: “Significant drops in crop production are expected in southern parts of Zimbabwe, Malawi, Madagascar, Lesotho and South Africa.” This was because of the “uncharacteristically low” rainfall being experienced in the region, it said.

This was coupled with a steady drop in crop yields in the area over the past five years. South Africa’s 31% drop in maize production was therefore a big problem for Southern Africa, it said. “This poses a serious cause for concern, as it might trigger higher food prices in the short term and a [food] deficit in surrounding countries.”

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