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ENVIRONMENT-SOUTH AFRICA: Western Cape Farmers Expect the Unexpected

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Jul 21 2008 (IPS) - The Western Cape region attracts millions of tourists who come to this part of South Africa to enjoy its famous Table Mountain and beaches, and to experience some of the world's best wines and deciduous fruits. But changes in the region's climate could be threatening these industries.

The tourism and agricultural industries are leading providers of employment in a country where unemployment ranges between 20 and 40 percent, depending on the measure. According to Statistics South Africa, farms in the Western Cape employ 25 percent of all farm workers in the country.

According to researchers, the weather in the Western Cape has already become unpredictable. The past ten years have seen a shortening in the intervals between droughts and floods. Rising temperatures are creating problems for fruit farmers, and forecasted water shortages are causing concern.

In order to give farmers and other stakeholders in Africa a range of alternatives to help them prepare for the future, the Climate Change Adaptation Programme for Africa has enlisted a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to develop various models and strategies. The team includes agricultural economists, meteorologists and farmers.

The project is funded by the Canada-based International Development Research Centre. Partners include the universities of Cape Town, the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the United Nations Environment Programme and the US-based International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Daan Louw, a professor at the University of the Free State's Department of Agricultural Economics, gives a simplified explanation: "We are building economic models by using the hydrological and meteorological information from our partners. With this information we can, for example, predict the way rainfall will flow and how it will influence the levels of the dams, and we can predict the effect of temperature changes on crops. We are working on adaptation strategies which will take costs, benefits and risk associated with climate change into account."

In the early phase of the project, the focus was on the Berg River Catchment Area, where a dam is being built to manage the demand for water. The strategies developed through this programme will be implemented by the Berg River Catchment Management Agency.

An increase in temperature has already had an affect on certain crops. "Because of warmer weather, we have seen bud break on orange trees coming earlier," says Peter Johnston, a researcher at the University of Cape Town's Climate Systems Analysis Group.

Early bud break can be devastating to farmers if the vulnerable buds are exposed to disease or if cold or frosty weather hits and destroys the crops.

According to Johnston, rainfall in the Western Cape has decreased by between 10 percent and 20 percent over the past 30 years, and this has led to a rise in temperature.

"Deciduous fruit need cold weather in which to 'rest'. If it is not cold enough, it could lead to a decrease in production," says Louw.

"An adaptation strategy will take into account which crops are less sensitive to warm weather. It might mean that other crops are planted or that new cultivars have to be developed. We have already seen new fig tree cultivars. The fig trees we have now look a lot different to the fig trees many households had in their backyards years ago."

As part of the project, intensive research is being done on ways to conserve water. Some farmers have already employed farming methods which make optimal use of this scarce resource.

"Whereas farmers in the past burnt down their stubble fields, they now spread leftover material on the soil for mulching. This keeps the moisture in the ground. There is also a move away from over tillage to minimum tillage. This leads to a better quality of soil, which needs less fertiliser," says Louw.

Johnston adds that if climate change does bring water shortages, stakeholders will have to think carefully about how available water resources will be divided and shared.

"If, for example, it is clear that the industrial sector has more potential for creating job opportunities than the agricultural sector, decisions will have to be made about allocating water more equitably," he says.

There are concerns that new farmers who are recipients of land through South Africa's land restitution programme – which aims to transfer at least 30 percent of agricultural land to previously disadvantaged people by 2015 – may be severely affected by climate change. As it is, the land restitution programme has often failed because the beneficiaries often do not have the skills to farm successfully. The South African government has been criticised for not helping these new farmers to acquire the necessary skills. According to Louw the research will also help these new farmers.

"New farmers are extremely vulnerable. Not only do they often not have skills, they do not have investment capital. They have to be brought on board and equipped with the knowledge generated by the research so that they are equipped for any future scenario. They have to plan their farming activities in such a way that they can be adapted to any changes caused by climate change," says Louw.

A farmer in the Swartland (a part of the Western Cape), Abraham van Santen, told IPS that he has seen drier spells over the past few years. "This year, the oranges on my farm for no reason just burst open three quarters of the way through their development stage. It could be because of the uncharacteristically warm weather we have had."

He adds that there has been an increase in warm weather cycles over the past decade. "In the past warm weather cycles were followed quickly by cooler cycles. However, we have seen three or four warm spells following each other quickly. There has also been a decrease in rain in the Swartland region."

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