Heatwave smashes 50-year record as it kills 11 in North West
The worst drought in decades has farmers in despair, slaughtering stock and abandoning planting
THE heatwave that swept through the country this week claimed 11 lives in North West.
Eight people died on Thursday, five of whom were dead by the time they arrived at Mafikeng Provincial Hospital. Three died in the casualty section of the hospital. On Friday three more people died, one in Mafikeng and two in Taung.
The victims were between 22 and 58 years old. Others affected by the heatwave included 16 people who were admitted to Mafikeng Provincial Hospital suffering from heatrelated symptoms.
Tebogo Lekgethwane, spokesman for the provincial health department, said it was unusual to have so many cases of heatstroke, and that the high temperatures were mostly affecting the elderly. Heatstroke is the most extreme symptom of extensive exposure to high temperatures, due to the body’s inability to regulate its own temperature.
The deaths come amid some of the highest recorded temperatures in the country. According to the South African Weather Service, heat records that had been standing for more than 50 years were broken.
North West recorded some of the most extreme temperatures in the country.
On Thursday, temperatures in parts of the province soared to record levels, including an all-time high in Marico district of 45ºC — breaking a 56-year-old record.
Mafikeng, where most of the affected victims in the province were referred to, recorded a maximum temperature of 41.4ºC.
Other areas in the country where the mercury rose past 40ºC included Thabazimbi in Limpopo at 44.7ºC on Thursday, Ladysmith in KwaZuluNatal at 43ºC on Wednesday, and a record-shattering 44.3ºC on the same day in the Northern Cape town of Kuruman.
According to the South African Weather Service, a heatwave is declared when temperatures reach 5ºC or more above the average of the hottest month at the location, for three days or longer.
The service explained that the heatwave, which lasted the whole week, was caused by a strong highpressure system over the northern, central and eastern parts of the country, resulting in “sunny, dry and hot weather”.
PARCHED river beds, cattle too weak to walk, failed crops, surplus carcasses stacked at abattoirs, and cows slaughtered with calves still in their bellies.
This is the nightmare South African farmers are living through as drought sucks the life from the landscape.
Soon, consumers will feel the pain too, as food prices soar. The worst-affected areas are the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and parts of the Northern Cape, but the effect on inflation will touch the entire country.
“We are going to see doubledigit food price inflation this year,” said economist Azar Jammine. “The drought coupled with the weakened rand is the perfect storm to take it past 10% to as high as 20% or 30%.”
The price of cereals and bread is set to soar in the first part of the year, and when that stabilises, the delayed whammy of the rising price of meat will hit.
Richard Stockley, head of innovation at Woolworths Food, said: “We do expect the drought to drive up prices due to lower supplies or increased imports.
“There will be an effect on products like chicken, eggs and beef as maize is the main component of their diet. In areas where the grazing has been impacted, the cost of dairy products like milk and cheese could also be affected.
“But, as retailers, it is our role to negotiate with suppliers and keep prices as low as possible, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
Neels de Villiers, head of the Red Meat Producers’ Association, said: “Right now the farmers don’t mind what price they get for livestock. But the abattoirs are full of carcasses and can’t get rid of them. There are cases where the cattle have died before they even get there.”
He said that with “so much meat going through the system”, prices would first drop, then get “very expensive”.
In January last year, inflation for raw goods in agricultural cereals and other crops was at minus 17.5%. By November, it had ballooned to 42.4%, according to Statistics SA.
Inflation for processed grain and milled products was at minus 1% in March, but by November was at 12.8%. Meat, on the other hand, was at 10.4% in March last year, but had shrunk to 1.3% by November.
“It is a matter of time before that changes direction, when they start restricting supply to market because all the dehydrated cattle have been slaughtered,” De Villiers said.
Abattoir owner Wynand Viljoen said festive season demand for meat was still high, but by the second half of January there would be an oversupply of poor-quality meat from lean cattle. He said cows used for breeding were “skin and bones” after weaning their young, and many others were too lean to ovulate and fall pregnant.
“The problem with that break in the breeding cycle will become clear in 18 to 24 months,” he said, and imports would then be the only solution.
“It will cost more and it will not be fresh,” he said.
KwaZulu-Natal farmer Sisa Damoyi said that even if it rained now, it would be too little, too late.
“It is already too late to plant anything, and the winter is going to be severe, so even it if rains now, we are in a bad situation. Some say we will survive, others say no.”
Cattle farmer André Ferreira, in the eastern Free State, said the river that bordered his farm was the driest it had been since 1957.
“Before, at this time of year, I could put my arm out my bakkie and my elbow would touch the tips of the grass. Now, it is barely two inches high.
“The last cow any farmer wants to sell is one with a calf. But now, as terrible as it sounds, many in the area are slaughtering their cows with unborn calves in their bellies because they cannot feed them.”
Also in the Free State, Abel Mzuzwana said he had lost 34 cows last year, and so far this year had lost 24 cows, 15 sheep and seven goats. “There is a shortage of fodder and water.”
Agricultural expert HO de Waal said it was the worst drought in 40 years. This time “it hasn’t bypassed urban communities as taps are running dry and people are taking notice. Citizens are realising previously you could open the tap and find water and not realise what was going on on the farms.”
He said the drought was having a bad psychological effect on farmers across the country.
One farmer had “shot 50 head of cattle because they were too weak to even get up so that their throats could be cut. You can see plants go down because of no water, but when you see redhad blooded animals emaciated and getting so weak and thin that they can’t walk any more, it has a very bad psychological effect on the farmers.”
Jacobus Venter, of Boere in Nood [Farmers in Need], said one farmer in the Eastern Cape recently committed suicide because of the drought.
“Krisjan Kruger, 34, took his own life and it was because of the drought. He just couldn’t handle any more what was happening to his cattle and his livelihood.”
Kruger’s family was not available for comment.
KwaZulu-Natal emerging farmers lost 40 000 head in November last year alone.
“Farmers have to burn the carcasses because of disease,” said agricultural economist Jan Willemse, adding that yellow maize for cattle feed was selling at R2 200 a ton six months ago, but had since risen to R3 800.
Jammine said a government contingency reserve for unexpected events such as drought was depleted last year when public servants received extra pay.
“Now when they desperately need relief, there is no capacity,” he said.
The Treasury had not responded by the time of writing.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which could apply for relief funding, said it could not comment as staff were on leave.
However, at provincial level, some efforts have begun. In the Free State, 20 000 bags of feed for livestock have been distributed and the provincial treasury has released R39-million for relief efforts.
But farmer organisations said it was too little, too late. Jack Armour, of Agri Free State, said: “Government has not stepped up to the plate. There is much talk but nothing substantial has happened.”
Damoyi said of relief in KwaZulu-Natal: “We are grateful. But it is a drop in the ocean.”
When you see animals so weak they can’t walk, it has a very bad effect on the farmers It is already too late to plant anything, and the winter is going to be severe