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Is SA positioned to aid countries hit by Cyclone Eloise?

‘We will have sufficient supplies to send to Mozambique…and, to a certain extent, Zimbabwe,’ if there is need: Wandile Sihlobo – agricultural economist, Agbiz.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Mozambique was hit by Cyclone Eloise over the weekend. At least five people are said to have been killed, while untold damage has been inflicted on the country, and thousands of people are said to have been displaced. In a previous extreme-weather event, that being Cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique and Zimbabwe in  early 2019, a lot of damage was caused and food insecurity became the order of the day, with South Africa stepping in to plug some of the gaps.

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Well, to find out the extent of the damage to Mozambique’s agricultural output, and the extent to which South Africa will be able to step in this year, I’m joined on the line by Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz. Thank you so much, Wandile, for joining us. We remember [the previous cyclone], when the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai occurred, which hit Mozambique and Zimbabwe, causing a lot of damage and so on. What’s the intelligence that we’re getting now about the impact of Eloise on Mozambique’s agricultural sector?

WANDILE SIHLOBO: Good afternoon, Nompu and the listeners. We are really now still trying to understand the extent of the damage. We know that from the last cyclone in 2019, there was damage in an area of roughly 700 000 hectares of agriculture in Mozambique, and also within the port of Beira, of course.

Right now we are already seeing some bigger damage, nearly 4 000 hectares from just higher rainfall in January.  Now, with the events of the weekend, we are yet to know what that impact will be – and not only on Mozambique, but I think also of Zimbabwe. Eswatini is one of the areas that we’re looking at, even going up towards Malawi to see what’s happening in those areas.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Like you say, if it is too early to make conclusions. It has really just hit. But it would appear that Mozambique’s food security is going to be threatened to some degree. So when Idai happened, South Africa was able to step in and assist in plugging in some of the country’s nutrition gaps. What is South Africa’s capacity like this year, and what sort of crops do you think Mozambique would demand from us?

WANDILE SIHLOBO: Mozambique is generally, Nompu, is a national importer of some the staple grains that you think about – maize, rice. They are generally net importers of that. And South Africa obviously is always a big supplier of maize. With the last cyclone in fact in Beira, their maize imports increased from the usual 100 000 tonnes to around 200 000 tonnes. And obviously there were still large quantities of rice and wheat within that.

We do think that now, if the damage is big, obviously the numbers could come close to what we saw in 2019. But, as we said, more is yet to unfold. But as South Africans on this side, we do have large supplies, we are expecting, if you had to have the second largest crop of roughly around 16.4 million tonnes of maize, and you will remember, we only consume about 11.4 million tonnes of maize. So we will have sufficient supplies to send to Mozambique in time of need, and also to a certain extent, Zimbabwe, if there is damage, and obviously they are the usual export market. But we will be monitoring and see how everything else unfolds in the coming week.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It is quite a double whammy that, when all of us are grappling with the pandemic, especially in Zimbabwe; they are really having a tough time. I was reading about people apparently being advised to go out and buy their own ventilators. And I know, from years back, that if you went to a hospital you needed to buy your own medication. So it’s like a double-whammy, and no doubt Zimbabwe will also need assistance from South Africa when it comes to crops.

WANDILE SIHLOBO: We had thought actually that this year Zimbabwe could be in a better position, because you will remember, Nompu, that last year they had a drought, and the year before that the harvest wasn’t good because of the cyclone. So, both of those years, they had each year to import nearly a million tonnes of maize.

So when we spoke to the [corn growers] at the start of this year, they told us they’d managed to plant roughly 1.4 million hectares of land, and they were able to get food on time. The rainfalls were good. So our view two weeks back was we thought that Zimbabwe might actually be in good shape. If there was any need for imports, it would be something maybe less than half a million tonnes. But this time around then, depending on what insight we may be getting about the damage throughout the week, we’ll be able to adjust that view.

But certainly it was a hopeful period across southern Africa, actually, that each country would be able to have a good supply. But I think the cyclone will shake things up a little bit.

Fortunately for us in South Africa, I think that as a grain-producing area, we will not have much damage. If anything, it will be on the far eastern side of Mpumalanga, parts of Limpopo. But even there our colleagues in the horticulture space, particularly food trusts,  so far are telling us that the damage remains minimal. But we are watching it.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes, we do have to watch that closely, don’t we? In South Africa, like you say, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, KZN, they tend to get the tail end of these ferocious storms that hit Mozambique initially. But of course it’s still a massive concern, more so because this seems to be a phenomenon that’s happening every so often, every couple of years, or every few years, and we know that climate change is real. And therefore you never know – we might get hit even harder down the line.

WANDILE SIHLOBO: Yes. It seems like since 2014 really, year after year, there are all of these events. And I think that’s the whole story of climate change. It’s something that we need to take up very seriously.

You remember, Nompu, in the Nineties, you would get a drought or some of the massive cyclones like this every five years, or four years or so. But the cycles now are much shorter. If you are not getting these floods, it will be something like the drought. So I think that the whole story on climate change, which then needs global cooperation. I’m glad that, even if you look at the US now, there is are starting to be an encouraging message about the whole story of climate change. I think that’s the broader thing that needs to be addressed because, in southern Africa, we get to feel all of the impact larger than the other regions of the continent.

NOMPU SIZIBA: You bring me nicely to my next question, which really is that I suppose it is a good thing that the US is re-joining the Paris Climate Accord, because it means that countries like America will likely assist countries in the SADAC region and elsewhere to come up with plans and resources around climate change, adaptation and mitigation.

WANDILE SIHLOBO: Yes. And I think that there is no necessary practical step in from this current event, but I think just thinking at the global level about what the strategies will be for dealing with climate change going forward. And also the thinking about what should be better agricultural production methods that various countries should focus on.

And also just investment on shorter-growing seed varieties of crops, because technology also cannot see the agricultural sector is adapting; the climate is changing some of the weather patterns. So I think that’s the global dialogue that will come out from the increased focus on climate change is  going to be an important one. And obviously with the US and other countries on the table, that’s only encouraging.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Indeed. Wandile, thank you so much for your time. That was one Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at Agbiz.

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Off course SA can…we’re still more wealthy and resourceful than our poorer neighboring states.

It will be a case of “the cripple helping the near-mortally wounded”

In short.. NO

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