Normal to below-normal rainfall forecast for  Southern Africa

Southern Africa is expected to receive erratic rainfall in the 2018/19 agricultural season, according to the latest outlook produced by regional climate experts who predict that seasonal rainfall will be “normal to below-normal” across most of the region, except for Tanzania.

The consensus forecast produced by the 22nd Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (sarcof) held in Lusaka, Zambia from August 22-24 shows that most of the 16 countries of the Southern African Development Community (sadc) are likely to receive “normal to below-normal” rainfall for the period October 2018 to March 2019.

The sarcof forecast is divided into two parts, covering October-November-December 2018 and January-February-March 2019.

The forecast shows that areas likely to receive “normal to below-normal” rainfall between October and December 2018 include eastern Angola, the extreme northern and southern parts of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), western and southern Madagascar, southern Malawi, most of Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as most of Namibia and South Africa, except the western fringes of the two countries along the Atlantic coast.

Only the United Republic of Tanzania is forecast to receive “normal to above-normal” rainfall over the same period, with the north of the country expected to get “above-normal to normal” rainfall, indicating that there could be flooding in some parts.

The rainfall forecast does not change much during the second half of the season from January to March 2019 when most of the region is expected to receive normal to below-normal rainfall.

The areas forecast to get adequate rainfall in that period are Angola, the northern tip of Botswana, Comoros, southeastern DRC, northern Malawi, Madagascar, Mauritius, northeastern Mozambique, northern Namibia, Seychelles, southern Tanzania, and the western and northern regions of Zambia.

Climate experts forecast that there is a possibility of an early onset of the 2018-19 season, a false start, which could be followed by prolonged dry spells that disturb the timing and spatial distribution of rainfall around the region.

While developing this outlook, the climate scientists took into account oceanic and atmospheric factors that influence climate over southern Africa.

In particular, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is forecast as likely to shift from neutral to the warm phase referred to as El Niño during the forthcoming season.

The expected rainfall for most of sadc is forecast to be insufficient to meet the needs of the agricultural and power generation sectors.

The forecast for the 2018/19 season means that the region should brace for erratic rains or even drought conditions over large portions of southern Africa, except for Tanzania and other areas predicted to have more higher rainfall in the second part of the season.

The associated agricultural risks include limited water availability, poor grazing areas and heat stress that could affect both crops and livestock.

Based on the outlook, farmers are urged to commit portions of their cropland to medium to late maturing and high-yielding crop varieties and also stagger their planting dates.

This should, however, be done in consultation with national agricultural extension and meteorological services.

The regional forecast comes at a time when the food security situation in southern Africa has been subdued this year due to a lower harvest during the 2017-18 agricultural season.

According to a report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in Southern Africa published by sadc in July, dry spells that characterized the 2017-18 rainfall season resulted in reduced cereal harvests compared to the 2017 bumper crop that generated a surplus.

Based on the 10 sadc Member States that provided cereal balance sheets for the 2018-19 marketing year, the region is estimated to have a cereal surplus of 6,3 million metric tonnes compared to 7,5 million tonnes for the same countries in the previous marketing year.

The countries that submitted their national vulnerability assessment reports are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The reports revealed that only Mozambique and Tanzania experienced increases in cereal production during the 2017/18 farming season.

Production of maize and other cereal in Mozambique is estimated to have increased by 15 percent to 3,2 million tonnes in the 2017/18 agricultural season from 2.8 the previous season, while preliminary estimates for Tanzania put the output at 9.5 million tonnes for 2017/18 cropping season, up from 9.4 million tonnes previously.

Cereal production in South Africa, which usually accounts for the largest proportion of regional output, is estimated to have decreased by 19 percent during the 2017/18 season compared to the previous period, according to the report.

The largest drop in output was in Zambia where cereal production declined by 33 percent during the last agricultural season compared to 2016/17, while Zimbabwe experienced an 18 percent drop.

The impact of the lower than expected harvest on the region is, however, expected to be offset by significant carry-over stocks in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

South Africa is forecast to have opening maize stocks of over four million metric tonnes while Zambia and Zimbabwe are expected to have opening maize stocks of 900 000 tonnes each.

This means that carry-over stocks in these countries and expected surpluses in Mozambique and Tanzania will be enough to offset the deficits in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho and Namibia.

This will require SADC member states to take appropriate measures to promote trading of maize and avoid taking ad-hoc actions that would restrict imports or exports of grains within the region.

The region has in the past adopted several measures to mitigate the impacts of poor harvests. These include the promotion of investment in research and improved access to financial resources for smallholder farmers.

Other strategies are measures to strengthen capacity for the dissemination of research technologies to farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, who are the majority of farmers in the region. Access to such information is critical for planning purposes, especially when farmers want to diversify into new crops or livestock.

With regard to water infrastructure development, SADC is investing in irrigation to enable farmers to grow crops all year round and not only depend on climatic conditions.

The Water Sector Plan of the SADC Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan contains a total of 34 infrastructure projects aimed at improving access to water in the region.

At the national level, various SADC member states are capacitating their farmers to embrace new technologies and ensure that they get increased productivity per unit area of land, rather than by increasing the area of cultivated land.

Individual countries are also improving their storage facilities to allow farmers to store their harvest for use in poor seasons.

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