Dry run for disaster: Small-scale farmers battle for survival in drought-crippled rural Eastern Cape

Xolisa Bomela is a small-scale sheep farmer in the deep rural Nteshe village of Nqamakhwe in Mnquma municipality in the Eastern Cape. He wakes up early every day to feed his livestock before releasing the animals on to the overgrazed land in his village.

Ten years of drought in parts of Amathole District Municipality (ADM) have cost Bomela R785,000. From 2010 until today, Bomela has lost R270,000 through the deaths of his cattle, sheep and goats, including calves, lambs and kids. He has spent R440,000 on feed and has lost R75,000 through theft of his cattle, sheep and wool.


Bomela is one of many livestock farmers in the Mnquma, Raymond Mhlaba and Mbashe municipalities who have been affected by the severe drought which has left dams and taps dry in parts of ADM since 2015.

Bomela said there are simply no grazing lands left in his village. “We have decided to buy our own feed for our livestock, but that is not enough. We are not winning this fight as our livestock is dying,” he said.

 
Bomela said the dire conditions cause pregnant sheep to miscarry, while those that do manage to give birth stop breastfeeding too soon. “This leads to lambs and some ewes dying… we have lost a lot due to this drought. We have been struggling since 2018, but last year was very bad for us as the whole country had to go to Level 5 lockdown because of Covid-19. We were forced to sell our rams at a lower price in the village.”


He said it will be very difficult for the small-scale farmers in ADM to recover from the drought.

“We don’t have insurance as it is expensive. We are responsible for any losses that we incur,” he said.

Eastern Cape Farmers Poultry Association chairperson, Mhlobo Mbane, said people have to get water from a river as the dams in Raymond Mhlaba municipality are empty.

“We had to scale down our numbers of livestock because having livestock beyond the carrying capacity of the grazing land leads to a lot of deaths… it costs farmers a lot as they have to buy feed,” he said.

Mbane said the drought had forced him to reduce the number of his chickens from 1,200 to 600.

“Livestock depends on water. We farmers in Raymond Mhlaba, with the assistance of the department of agriculture, have built a custom feedlot to fatten our old cattle because they can’t pick up weight on their own… we need to feed them. We have three feedlot sites in the municipal area,” he said.

But feeding is far more expensive than natural grazing because the farmers have to buy supplements and lucerne bales.

“A bale costs R150 and it does not last even a day for one cow. A 40kg bag of supplements cost around R340 per bag, and it doesn’t last a week when you are feeding four cows. A farmer spends between R10,000 and R20,000 during the winter season. The average feed cost is R8,000 per farmer, apart from maize. But for us it is bad as we have been affected by the drought for a long time,” he said.

ADM spokesperson Nonceba Madikizela-Vuso said the critical areas hit by drought in ADM are Mnquma, Mbhashe and Raymond Mhlaba municipalities.

“Of the biggest concern are Butterworth, Kei Mouth, Adelaide and Debe Neck, where dam levels remain low. Council has been declaring ADM a drought disaster since 2015. While taps are not yet dry, the situation is getting worse by the week and should there not be sufficient rain, taps will run dry soon,” she said.

When asked what assistance is being given to farmers in ADM to help them survive the drought, Madikizela-Vuso said: “ADM is not responsible for agriculture — the question must be referred to the department of agriculture.”

Spokesperson for the Eastern Cape department of rural development and agrarian reform, Masiza Mazizi, said the department works closely with the municipalities in preparing drought reports that are used in requesting drought declarations to the provincial drought management committee.

“These are then escalated to the national committee. This is what the department has done in this instance. The department has engaged the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, requesting support to the value of R100-million for drought relief. We are still expecting a response from them,” he said.

Mazizi said the most drought-stricken farming areas in the Eastern Cape are Sarah Baartman and Nelson Mandela metropolitan municipalities, as well as Raymond Mhlaba and Ngqushwa in ADM.

Eastern Cape department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson, Mamkeli Ngam, said that since the national disaster management centre had declared a drought disaster, it was the centre that would decide what support will be given to the affected areas.

“They are the ones taking the decisions on what kind of support should be given to each area,” he said.