South Africa: Drought Threatens Food, Energy and Water Security

31 March 2016 Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • In 2015, South Africa had the lowest amount of rainfall since records began in 1904.
  • The drought has been attributed to the El Niño phenomenon. These events could occur more frequently and with greater severity. South Africa will need to consider how to best adapt to such conditions.
  • South Africa is a net-exporter of food. Many countries in Southern Africa rely on its produce to sustain their food supplies. Due to lower production, regional food insecurity is likely to increase until at least mid-2017.
  • If future climate predictions prove correct, alternative crops, water sources and methods of electricity production will need to be considered.


Southern Africa is in the grip of its worst drought in decades. South Africa, the region’s largest food producer, has been particularly affected by the dry conditions. It typically exports surplus food to neighbouring countries but, due to decreased production, it is not able to do so this year. If South Africa is transitioning to a new climate paradigm, it will need to explore the feasibility of producing alternative food crops, developing new sources of water and constructing alternative methods of generating electricity. Failing to do this will result in increased food, energy and water insecurity.


El Niño generally brings drier conditions to Southern Africa. Prior to the drought, there were reportedly 16 million highly food insecure in the region, not including those in South Africa. In 2014, according to the World Food Programme, 14 million South Africans experienced some form of deprivation, including, but not limited to, food insecurity. As the impact of the drought continues to unfold, 49 million across Southern Africa are now estimated to be at increased risk of food deprivation. As the next harvest, set to begin in April and May, is likely to be much lower than usual the situation is unlikely to improve until mid-2017 at the earliest.

Impacts on South Africa, the Largest Food Producer in Southern Africa

Large parts of Southern Africa have experienced below average rainfall in the past twelve months. The lack of rainfall had a measureable impact upon cereal production. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the region’s 2015 harvest is estimated to be 22.6 per cent below that of 2014.

Southern Africa Cereal Production

South Africa, the main agricultural producer in the region, has been most affected by the dry spell. Five of its nine provinces have been declared drought disaster zones. The average annual rainfall for the country is 608 mm. In 2015, it experienced its driest year since records began in 1904, receiving an average of only 403 mm across the country. The lack of rainfall contributed to the late start in the growing season. Planting was delayed by 30 to 60 days and the area under crop was also much lower than in previous years. As a result, its cereal production in 2015 is anticipated to be 28 per cent lower than the 2014 harvest.

South Africa Cereal Production

South Africa is a naturally dry country. To overcome this limitation it has captured rainfall from provinces adjacent to Lesotho, where most of the rain falls, and distributed it to areas where there is less precipitation. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), which began operation in 1986, transfers water from the landlocked enclave to the industrial and mining heartland of South Africa. The project diverts roughly 40 per cent of the Senqu River basin’s water to South Africa’s Vaal River through a system of canals, pipelines and tunnels. As the population and economy has grown, however, this engineering feat is no longer sufficient to ensure an adequate supply of water.

South Africa is a major producer of agricultural goods. It is self-sufficient in a range of food commodities and usually producers an exportable surplus of food. It exports crops to the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Cereals and grains, particularly maize, are the main crops grown in the country. Fruit is another significant export crop, accounting for up to 40 per cent of export revenue. After Spain, South Africa is the world’s largest citrus exporter. The current drought threatens all food exports.

The drought has been blamed on the El Niño phenomenon that has affected the region since mid-2015. The 2015-16 El Niño is one of the strongest to have occurred in the past 50 years. While it could be the main driver of the drought, it is likely that there were other contributing factors that resulted in the most severe dry spell in South Africa’s recorded weather history.

If the current drought was mainly caused by El Niño then it can be dismissed as a once in a lifetime disaster. There is a possibility, however, that these extreme conditions are likely to occur more frequently in coming decades. As a result, South Africa is predicted to experience droughts more frequently in the future, compared to the long-term historical trend. Dhesigen Naidoo, the Chief Executive of the National Water Commission, a research and science agency in Pretoria, has voiced his concern by stating:

We are convinced that this drought is not part of a normal drought cycle that previously we’ve had in the past. This one is quite different. The combination with the heat wave is unique. The heat wave builds itself into an extreme example of the weather pattern in this part of the world we’ve experienced for at least six years. It tells us we are in quite a different regime. So we regard this as a drought in the climate change scenario.

If his assessment is correct, South Africa, and the region that it provides with food, will experience greater levels of deprivation in the future.

As climatic conditions could become increasingly unstable, the region will need to identify alternative crops. One study suggests that the growing of maize will become unviable in about 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa currently producing the crop. It suggests that sorghum and millet, which have a higher drought and heat tolerance, could replace maize in most instances. For 0.8 million hectares in South Africa, that currently produce 2.7 million tonnes of maize, however, there is no viable substitution. If this projection is accurate, the region will need to adapt to changing climatic conditions or face weakening food security.

Implications for South Africa

Maize is the main crop grown in South Africa and is a major staple grain throughout Southern Africa. GrainSA, a national association for grain farmers, has stated that maize output in the 2015 season fell by almost a third from 14.3 million tonnes a year earlier to 9.7 million. As the 2014 harvest was the largest in 33 years, however, this decline is not as alarming as it first appears. Predictions for the coming year suggest that it will decline another 27 per cent to 7.26 million tonnes. As South Africans consume about ten million tonnes of maize each year, it is expected that between three and four million tonnes will be imported in 2016 to avoid shortages. At a time when the rand is trading at close to its all-time high against the US dollar, however, this will pose a considerable burden.

Two varieties of maize are grown in South Africa. Yellow maize is produced mainly for the production of fodder for livestock while the white variety is grown for human consumption and is a staple source of calories for most households. Due to the shortage, it has been forced to import maize from Argentina, Ukraine and Mexico. Yellow maize is relatively easy to source as it is widely grown. The white variety, on the other hand, can only be sourced from the Southern African region, the US or Mexico. Of these three regions, only Mexico and the US will be capable of supplying the region. Mexico, however, is limited in how much it can export and, due to many Southern African countries having strict anti-genetically modified food laws the amount coming from the US could also be low.

It is not just maize growers that are suffering lower harvests. Sugar cane growers usually produce 19 million metric tons per year, but predictions by mill operators suggest that this will be reduced by one-third. Livestock producers are also predicting similar loses. Many regions lack roughage for animals to graze on and farmers are battling to maintain stock levels.

As a whole, the agricultural sector experienced a 14 per cent decline in 2015. According to state statistics, the drought has caused 16 billion rand ($1.4 billion) in lost revenue in the agriculture sector. The situation appears unlikely to improve in the near-term as dry conditions are expected to persist until at least mid-2016.

Rising Food Prices

Although global maize production has been increasing for the best part of a decade and global stockpiles are at a ten-year high, the weakening rand is likely to inflate the cost of imported food.

South African maize prices rose throughout 2015 and reached all-time highs in February 2016. The rise can be attributed to the poor 2015 harvest and the poor production outlook for 2016. The July 2016 futures price for white maize has risen to a record high, suggesting that market speculation could force the price even higher.

Rising food prices have contributed to the steep rise in the national inflation rate, which rose to seven per cent year on year in February 2016. Increased inflation will have ramifications for the wider economy and reduce the purchasing power of South African consumers.

Decreased Exports to Regional Markets

Southern African countries, such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Zambia and Mozambique usually rely on agricultural imports from South Africa. Up to 40 per cent of their food is grown in the country. Some of these countries, including Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, have declared national emergencies in response to drought conditions and will require more imports than usual. As crop production is well below average this year, international aid agencies are concerned that millions of people in the region will require humanitarian assistance. GrainSA is still forecasting the export of 810,000 tonnes of maize and related products to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe over the coming year. Regional supplies, however, are believed to be insufficient to meet demand and external supplies will be required.

Prior to the drought, it was estimated that 14 million people in Southern Africa, excluding South Africa, were food insecure. Over the course of 2016, the number of food insecure people in the region could rise to 50 million, a level not seen since the regional food crisis of 2002-03.

Reduced agricultural exports will result in lower government revenue and the increased importation of foodstuffs from overseas will likely increase South Africa’s trade deficit at a time when other commodity prices are low.

Declining Water Security

South Africa depends on Lesotho for almost a quarter of its water supply. Lesotho receives 60 per cent more rain than South Africa, some of this is transferred through a system of reservoirs, dams and transport tunnels to South African municipalities and mine sites. The provinces of Gauteng and Free State benefit the most from this water transfer programme, while other provinces, such as Limpopo, rely predominantly on storage dams. The amount of water in these dams is rapidly diminishing. Levels have dropped from an average of 70 per cent at the beginning of 2015 to less than 40 per cent in January 2016. As the region is likely to experience more erratic weather patterns it is unlikely that building more dams and expanding the LHWP will resolve South Africa’s water security issues.

Agriculture is the main user of water in South Africa, it accounts for 60 per cent of water demand. Approximately one-third of water used by the agricultural sector is lost in river and canal conveyance systems. Improving irrigation systems in the country will be vital if water insecurity is to be avoided.

Demand for water across South Africa is projected to increase by 20 per cent by 2025. Meeting this increased demand will prove challenging for a variety of reasons. The average age of water infrastructure is reportedly 39 years and much of it requires repairs, upgrades or expansion. Water security in South Africa was underwhelming even prior to the crisis. Leaky infrastructure and theft results in the loss of 1.58 billion kilolitres of water per year – about 13 per cent of the 12.5 billion kilolitres it uses each year. As much as 37 per cent of treated water is lost each year. Addressing infrastructural deficiencies will be a key part of improving water security.

Skilled labour shortages, however, could complicate this task. Since the apprenticeship system was abolished, the number of civil engineers or tradespeople with the necessary qualifications to build and maintain water infrastructure has declined. The “War on Leaks” programme, which encourages unemployed people to become plumbers, electricians and water monitors could, with time, begin to fix some of South Africa’s infrastructural problems.

Projections suggest that demand for water will increase by 52 per cent by 2030. If this occurs, demand is set to outstrip supply by 2.7 billion cubic metres per year. Unless efforts are made to conserve water and slow demand, South Africa faces the prospect of becoming a water scarce country.

Uncertain Electricity Projects

As it has a well-developed coal mining industry and ample reserves, South Africa naturally depends on coal-fired power plants for electricity generation. Almost 90 per cent of its electricity supply comes from these plants. Coal-fired plants consume considerable amounts of water for cooling. Two new plants, Medupi and Kusile, are planned for Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.

The 4,800MW Medupi plant will use dry cooling which requires considerably less water than older coal-fired plants. The plant is under construction in the water-scarce Waterberg district of Limpopo. Even though Medupi will require less water than older plants, it will still draw water from the Crocodile West water transfer scheme. The transfer scheme is unlikely to provide enough water and Eskom, the state-owned electricity supplier, has delayed the construction of flue gas desulphurisation technology at the plant, which was a condition of the World Bank loan for the plant’s construction. South Africa is faced with a considerable challenge, to develop infrastructure that drives economic growth while also ensuring sustainable water use. Inevitably, given the growing pressure on the country’s water supply, alternative sources of electricity will need to be developed.

Pretoria plans to phase out roughly ten gigawatts of older coal-power capacity and replace it with renewable energy. The majority of the grid, however, will continue to rely on coal, the mining of which also consumes significant amounts of water and has the potential to contribute to groundwater pollution. South Africa will not cease coal production. It has the world’s ninth-largest amount of recoverable reserves and 95 per cent of Africa’s total coal reserves. To cease production would be too economically disruptive.

Hydropower is not a realistic option. Currently, about five per cent of the country’s electricity is generated by hydroelectric and pumped storage schemes. There are few viable hydropower sites available in the country and the increased variability in surface water sources does not make them conducive to expanding the country’s hydro sector.

South Africa has limited proven gas reserves, but it does have access to what is believed to be the world’s eighth-largest shale gas reserves. Gas could become another alternative to South Africa’s energy supply challenge as gas power plants consume much less water than coal-fired plants. Exploration for shale gas deposits could begin within the next 12 months, as a government moratorium has been lifted. The semi-desert Karoo region is believed to hold upwards of 485 trillion cubic feet of the resource. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process by which shale gas is extracted, is controversial as it uses large amounts of water and could contaminate groundwater supplies.

Eskom released plans to build six nuclear power plants by 2030. These will use less water than coal-fired power stations and emit less carbon dioxide, but they will be costly to build. Cost estimates range from 650 billion rand ($55.9 billion) to over one trillion rand ($85.9 billion). Given that the government’s revenue target for 2016/17 is 1.3 trillion rand ($111.8 billion), the project would consume a significant amount of the budget. Fears about a credit rating downgrade to junk status are likely to weigh heavily on any decision to pursue the nuclear option, probably putting the development of the industry on hold for now.

Renewable sources of electricity production appear to be best placed to conserve water, however, they are unlikely to be able to provide enough power to meet demand. Nuclear power provides another solution, but is likely to prove too expensive. If shale gas reserves can be developed, it is likely that this will provide a realistic alternative to coal-fired power generation.

Alternative Sources of Water

The current drought has highlighted the weakness of the South African water sector. If it is to avoid similar situations from arising again it will need to identify new means of sourcing water to protect its supply.

The Director General of the South African Department of Water and Sanitation, Margaret-Ann Diedricks, has suggested that groundwater will need to supplement diminishing surface water supplies. Groundwater currently accounts for 13 per cent of the country’s total water use. Dr Shafick Adams of the Water Research Commission estimates that there is as much as ten million cubic metres of renewable groundwater available per year. This drops to seven million in a normal drought and without proper management the resource is also at risk of being overexploited.

As only four per cent of annual rainfall infiltrates the soil and recharges aquifers it is important that groundwater is properly accounted for and monitored. At the moment, this is not occurring. There is a lack of accurate data that measures the amount of groundwater available and the amount that is taken out. The government has historically relied on users of groundwater to provide usage statistics, but usually there is no legislation obliging them to do so.

Without the required information to properly manage groundwater it is possible that an increasing reliance on the resource will be a short-term solution to South Africa’s water problems. Already there are indications of overuse. Farmers in Free State, an area renowned for its maize production, have reported that they used to be able to draw water from 15 metres below ground. In recent years, however, they have drilled up to 500 metres underground and found no water. Groundwater, on its own, is unlikely to improve South Africa’s water security.

Water Recycling: Lessons from Namibia

Namibia, South Africa’s north-western neighbour, has faced similar water shortages in the past. It tried constructing dams to store water from the occasional flash flood that momentarily swells its rivers. As the evaporation rate is almost ten times the average amount of annual rainfall, dams alone are not a suitable solution. The country began to explore alternative ways of supplementing its water supply to better ensure uninterrupted service.

In the 1960s, the Namibian city of Windhoek was the first in the world to reclaim municipal wastewater and turn it into drinking water.  Windhoek is situated in the centre of one of the most arid countries in Africa. It depends on water from boreholes and three surface dams located 60 to 200 kilometres away. The Goreangab Water Reclamation Plant was built in 1968 and processed domestic sewage effluent into reclaimed water. The technology has been exported to three cities in the United States and is widely used in Malaysia. South Africa could also consider utilising the technology to bolster its water security.

Water reclamation plants are only part of the solution to the water crisis. As the region has received limited rainfall, dams are much lower and the supply of wastewater has diminished as people are using less water in the first place. Instead of storing water in above ground dams that are susceptible to high rates of evaporation, Windhoek plans to begin recharging aquifers that will provide the city with up to 18 months of water. Similar solutions could prove difficult for South Africa given its level of groundwater pollution.

Wastewater treatment facilities exist in South Africa, but are not used to increase municipal water through reclamation. Many of these facilities are in a parlous state, according to the 2013 Green Drop Report, 30 per cent of them are in a “critical state”.

Previous efforts to implement water reclamation projects for municipal use were met with community apprehension. Two plants were planned for KwaZulu-Natal but, fears from the community over the safety of the reclaimed water put an end to their development. Wastewater treatment plants can consume a lot of energy – up to one-third of a city’s total energy bill in some cases, according to the World Resources Institute. Instead of considering wastewater recycling, probably due to the potential community backlash, the South African Government has turned to the costly and more energy-intensive desalination process.


The South African drought has been attributed to the El Niño event that drove weather conditions for most of 2015. These natural phenomena generally occur every two to seven years, however, due to increased climate volatility, the potential for them to occur more frequently and with greater intensity rises. To prepare for this, South Africa needs to explore the potential for alternative crop production, electricity production and sources of water. If it fails to prepare for what could be the new normal, it will likely face increased pressure on its food, energy and water supply.

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