El Niño might not be so bad: Wandile Sihlobo

Amid dire warnings of a possible agricultural disaster in Southern Africa, with hot and dry conditions starting later this year, one respected agricultural economist says things might not be that bad.

The weather change will be caused by the return of the El Niño phenomenon, ending three seasons of above-average rainfall and ushering in the possibility of record temperatures and drought.

The Agricultural Business Chamber said last month that the El Niño weather effects could pose a threat to South Africa’s food security.

However, the chamber’s chief economist, Wandile Sihlobo, now has better news, at least in the short term.

In a lengthy tweet, Sihlobo said the weather phenomenon, monitored by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, would bring below-normal rainfall and hotter temperatures in South Africa.

“If it is intense, this could resemble the bleak agricultural conditions we witnessed during the last El Niño drought in the 2015/16 season,” he said. This resulted in severe losses in maize and other field crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock.

“But I doubt things will be this bad. So far, all indications indicate a weak El Niño and the soil moisture remains reasonably favourable across South Africa.

“Thus, I remain optimistic that the 2023/24 agricultural season in South Africa should be okay, although crop yields could drop considerably from the levels of the past few years,” Sihlobo said.

“If my view is correct, we shouldn’t have a notable uptick in consumer food price inflation in 2024; if anything, we should see a softer pace than the expected 2023 levels,” he concluded.

One commentator has already tweeted that it’s too early to conclude a strong El Niño is unlikely – the El Niño indicators will only be in full swing from September onwards.

It’s a development that will be watched very closely because El Niño can have a huge effect not only on agriculture but on the whole South African economy.