Pictured above: An orchard of dead almond trees in California, which has experienced some of the driest years on record.
Commercial farmers on the eastern seaboard of South Africa must prepare themselves for increased extreme weather instability as global warming influences the voracity of both the El Niño and La Niña phenomena.
Experts are predicting the rise of El Niño late in South Africa’s winter or in early spring, with the full impact of the phenomenon expected to drive up temperatures to record highs in 2024.
While the presence of La Niña (little girl in Spanish) usually means good rainfall and abundant seasons, El Niño translates as much drier seasons and drought conditions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
In The Wall Street Journal early in February (https://www.wsj.com/articles/el-ninos-return-grows-more-likely-as-la-nina-weather-pattern-winds-down-fb43cc58), climate journalist Eric Niiler describes La Niña as “part of a shifting weather pattern …that occurs when unusually strong trade winds push warm Pacific Ocean surface waters west towards Asia”.
El Niño, on the other hand, is when these trade winds weaken and warmer-than-normal water “sloshes” from the western Pacific Ocean to the eastern Pacific.
La Niña has dominated climatic conditions since 2017 after 2016 was declared the hottest year on record worldwide, driven mainly by a “major” El Niño.
Scientists are warning the likely return of El Niño later this year could see the world warm by 1.5C or more. While this year is expected to be hotter than 2022, scientists are predicting the full impact of El Niño to play out in 2024, with temperatures expected to soar across the globe.
Professor Mark Laing, Professor Emeritus and Chair of Plant Pathology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says human-induced weather instability has brought volatility and voracity to the La Niña and El Niño phenomena, resulting in greater oscillations between floods and droughts and extreme heat and extreme cold, resulting in exponential damage to crops and farm operations in the country.
“Agriculture requires stability on a seasonal basis for crops and animals to flourish. Climatic instability is always bad for agriculture and for the infrastructure, such as roads, rail, water and electricity, on which food production relies. It will also disrupt global supply chains, meaning sourcing food from alternative markets will become increasingly difficult,” he said.
Laing warned farmers to diversify by including crops able to tolerate variable climatic conditions, such as sweet potato and tree crops like avocado, macadamia and litchi.
“Mono- or duo-cultures are no longer sustainable. Farmers must look to the development of agronomic practices to allow for their crops to cope with extreme weather events.”
He urged farmers to factor the impact of climate change into their business planning. “Identify the parts of the farming operations that are most vulnerable to extreme weather events, both on-farm and in the district. Develop strong networks with neighbours and beyond to cope with climate-linked disasters on properties. Build relationships with local and national politicians to strengthen critical infrastructure to allow for weather resilience.”
He also listed contingency plans to cope with disruptions of water, electricity, fuel, road and rail infrastructure as much as capital would allow.
“These are huge challenges, but if farmers act proactively, their operations will be more resilient and they will leave a legacy of hard-won knowledge of a highly efficient farming programme. Ironically, in a time of crisis, opportunities abound for people with vision and determination who thrive on adversity and taking on the unexpected head on.”
In the sugarcane-producing sector, Laing said it was vital the South African government updated the Sugar Act to allow for downstream processing in biofuels and bioplastics to allow for a more sustainable and resilient industry in the face of these weather events.
“Commercial farmers must proactively change their agronomic systems to cope with the extreme climatic fluctuations that will become ‘normal’. This includes hardening the infrastructure on their farms to cope with extreme drought and flood, and heat and cold. The fact is that droughts and floods are becoming more regular.”
In severe heat conditions, Laing said farmers might think of reflective shade netting to protect their macadamia trees as well as extensive mulching and the installation of drip irrigation particularly, as he predicted an exponential leap in the price of water.
The impact on agriculture would be severe, he added, urging farmers and the regional governments to respond proactively to the challenges rather than waiting until the damage was done.
He feared that neither the agriculture sector nor the government was fully cognisant of what lay ahead. “We continue to live and work as if the climate crisis is not going to happen. The tragedy is that it is already here and is going to have such a massive impact that both economics and politics will become overwhelmed as global food supplies and infrastructure collapse.”