South Africa’s farmers can benefit by reducing their water use

South Africa will deal with future water constraints by importing basic foodstuffs from its neighbours. Delpixel

South Africa’s agribusinesses will find themselves at the back of the queue for water in future. The demands for water for urbanisation and associated industrialisation will take priority. If the agricultural sector does not take steps to ensure that it can cope, its future success is at risk. But the pressure is also creating opportunities to respond by using water more efficiently and creating more jobs.

Taking water from farmers to cities is expected to be a worldwide phenomenon. A large proportion of the world’s population, which is expected to grow to nine billion people by 2050, will be living in cities. And as people get better off, they are expected to eat more. It has been assumed this will require more water to produce more food.

But experts warn that, as urban and industrial water demand rises, water will be taken from agriculture. As a result, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the policy club of rich countries, expects water withdrawals for food production to fall by up to 15% by 2050. Countries which used to produce enough food to meet their needs may have to import more to remain food secure.

In South Africa, agriculture uses almost 60% of available water. But as far back as 1970, farmers were warned that the priority would be to provide water for growing cities. Farmers would have to use the water they had more efficiently. Today, the additional challenge for South African farming and agribusiness is that they must also address the country’s social and economic transformation.

This is in line with the 2012 recommendations of the National Development Plan, or NDP. The NDP says that agriculture has the potential to create close to one million new jobs by 2030. To do this, it must expand irrigation. But because of limited water availability, this will have to be done primarily through more efficient use of existing water resources. It will have to be accompanied by serious transformation of the agribusiness sector.

In South Africa, agriculture uses almost 60% of available water. Shutterstock

What can be done

There are two things the sector can do to achieve this.

  1. Agribusiness, both farmers and the processing industry, need to get more involved in the management of South Africa’s water resources. To ensure that supplies are reliable, they must join the work of the Catchment Management Agencies, CMAs, that government is setting up across the country. By doing this, they will help to develop and implement strategies to decide who gets to use limited water and what can be done to make more available. The water allocation process, for which the CMAs will be responsible, will have to balance jobs and wealth creation with equity. This may create new opportunities for partnerships that bring together farmers, their suppliers and the processors who buy their produce.

  2. Agribusiness must also recognise that southern African countries like Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola are far better placed to produce staple crops than South Africa. Those four countries have almost 30 million hectares of underutilised farmland. They also have far more water available for agriculture than South Africa. Indeed, in many cases, they can grow crops which are irrigated in South Africa, using only rainfall.

South Africa’s advantages

As a result, it is likely that South Africa will deal with its future water constraints by importing more basic foodstuffs from its neighbours. South African farmers will then have to focus even more on the valuable niches where the country has shown it can do well. South Africa already exports high value fruit crops as well as processed products like wine.

South Africa has an advantage in these and other specialist crops and products, which are capital and labour-intensive and need skilled management. Internationally, it has been suggested that a new approach called sustainable intensification, is required to meet future food needs while protecting the environment. South Africa is well placed to follow this approach.

Sustainable intensification troubles environmentalists because it will involve more technology like modified crop varieties, pesticides and fertilisers. But its supporters point out that this will do less damage to nature because less land and water will be used. In addition, precision farming techniques will be used which target the application of fertilisers and pesticides instead of spraying them over a wide area. This will reduce the potential damage that they do.

So the future for South African farming may be to concentrate on growing and processing the high value crops that the country is already good at. But that will require buying more staple foods from neighbours. This would help to expand trade between South Africa and other countries in the region.

All this is only likely to happen if the agribusiness sector plays its part in helping to support the continued transformation of South Africa’s economy, society and water management. Sustainable intensification must be accompanied by an intensification of jobs as well as an expansion of black ownership and management if it is to be supported. If those partnerships can be forged, South Africa’s agricultural industries will be on a path forward to a prosperous future and as well as supporting the management of its scarce water.

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