"Sunny and dry" is an unwelcome forecast

At least six countries in Southern Africa could receive poor rainfall during the critical planting season starting next month, says an early forecast for the 2008/09 agricultural season.

Lesotho, Swaziland, most of Namibia, parts of Angola, Madagascar and South Africa are likely to receive "normal to below-normal" rain in the first half of the season from October to December, said the forecast by the Drought Monitoring Centre of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

This could have significant implications for the start of the growing season, meaning that rains could be delayed or erratic. "[If this happens] the situation is likely to be critical in those areas that also had a poor season or poor harvest last year and are trying to recover," said an analysis of the forecast by Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources (FANR) directorate of SADC (SADC-FANR).

Lesotho and Swaziland are still recovering from one of their worst ever droughts in 2007, which left several hundred thousand in need of food aid. Southern Angola recorded poor harvests in 2007 and production in Namibia was down by four percent last season.

SADC-FANR warned that the situation was more critical in areas where poor rainfall in the first half of the season was likely to be followed by a "normal to below normal rainfall" in the second half of the season, from January 2009 to the end of March 2009.

The report predicts that the six countries which could receive poor rains in the next three months could end up in this critical category.

In these areas, the forecast indicated that the second half of the season might be characterised by erratic rains that were insufficient to bring crops to maturity. "In such a scenario, farmers might opt for short-maturing crop varieties that might mature before any early cessation of the rains," SADC-FANR suggested.

"But we must be cautious about the forecast, as this is an early prediction - a clearer picture will emerge closer to the start of the season in October," said Kennedy Masamvu, a senior SADC-FANR agro-meteorologist.

''The impact of climate change is clearly felt - it is a fact that it is only going to get drier, and we have to opt for more sustainable agriculture practices and opt for short-cycle, high-yielding varieties''

Meteorologists say the climate outlook for SADC region seems to be in a neutral phase, emerging from a La Niña cycle, which has had a "wet impact", perhaps towards a drier phase. La Niña is characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, recorded every three to four years, which have a ripple effect across the globe, making wet regions wetter and dry ones drier.

Jennifer Moetie, a meteorologist at the Namibian Meteorological Service, said: "If the temperature of the Pacific Ocean should rise by one degree Celsius by next month [October] then we could be moving towards a drier phase; it is still very neutral at this stage."

High fertiliser and fuel prices have already made most farmers in the region consider planting less. "The cost of fertiliser has shot by more than 150 percent since last year," said John Weatherson, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's former emergency coordinator in Swaziland.

"I have seen 30 maize seasons in Swaziland; the planting season has been pushed back from September to November as the rains have become more unpredictable over the years," he commented. "The impact of climate change is clearly felt - it is a fact that it is only going to get drier, and we have to opt for more sustainable agriculture practices and opt for short-cycle, high-yielding varieties."

The SADC's report said normal to above-normal rains forecast for Zambia could result in flooding in some parts of the Zambezi River Basin.

jk/he/oa