Drought emergency in six provinces affects 4 million

The South African cabinet is expected to endorse a plan to provide relief to more than four million people affected by one of the worst droughts in recent decades.

Xolani Xundu, spokesperson for the Provincial and Local Government Minister, Sydney Mufamadi, told IRIN this number was expected to rise.

"The relief measures would not only include food assistance for farmworkers, but also comprise providing access to drinking water, animal feed for cattle and medicines," he said.

South African President Thabo Mbeki declared six of the country's nine provinces disaster areas on Friday. The provinces reeling from the effects of low or almost no rainfall are Northern Cape, North-West, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Free State. A seventh province, Limpopo, had previously been declared a disaster area.

In October last year the government allocated R250 million (just over US $34.3 million) for drought relief. The cabinet will consider relief proposals put together by an interministerial committee on disaster mangement on Wednesday.

Ongoing drought has affected the production of maize, the country's main crop, and South Africa could be facing the lowest production in the last 30 years. The country consumes 7.6 million tonnes of maize annually, but conservative estimates put the production figure for 2003/04 at between 6.5 million and 6.7 million mt - a shortfall of around a million tonnes.

The South African Chamber of Milling said on Monday it expected food prices in South Africa to jump by 20 percent in the coming months. Johann de Villiers, head of the chamber, told IRIN the price of maize could go up by R200 (US $27.45) or even R300 (US $41.17) a tonne in the next two or three months: "The problem would not be that of availbility of maize in the country, but that of accessibility to poor South Africans."

De Villiers said with a carry-over stock of more than two million mt, there was no reason for alarm. "Even in the worst-case scenarios, South Africa will not have to import white maize, but it does import yellow maize. This year it might have to import a bit more."

The National Crops Estimates Committee is on Tuesday expected provide a total of the area of land devoted to maize this year. De Villiers said this would give an indication of maize production for the year.

Billy Bodma, chair of Grain SA, a national farmers association, said: "At the end of November, farmers had expected to plant at least 2.8 million hectares of maize, but with the failure of rain we are probably looking at 2.5 to 2.6 million hectares." South African farmers usually devote at least three million hectares of land to the maize crop.

South Africa's drought will have a regional impact, as its grain is purchased by humanitarian agencies to feed the region. Graham Farmer, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's regional emergency coordinator for southern Africa said: "We are concerned about availability and the prices."

He pointed out that high prices would affect neighbouring countries like Swaziland and Lesotho, whose markets are linked to those in South Africa.

Rod Blondin, head of the agricultural section of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, told IRIN the volatile price of maize "is weather-driven at the moment," and explained that it had shot up by R120 (US $16.47) a tonne last week, "but the rainfall over the weekend brought the price down by R45 (US $ 6.17) a tonne on Monday."

Blondin said it was "very diffcult" to predict the trend of the maize price over the next few months. Maize was currently trading at R1,400 (US $192.14) a tonne, down from R2,000 (US $274.48) a tonne in 2002, when the price was influenced by the low value of the rand and higher input costs. This year, all role players agreed, drought was the main reason for the hike in price.