The drought gripping the Western Cape shows no sign of abating and threatens to decimate the province’s crucial agricultural sector.

Halfway through the Western Cape’s winter rainy season, rainfall remains disappointingly erratic, dam levels are still critically low and farmers are anxious, with big losses expected.

Agriculture is the backbone of the province’s economy. The Western Cape produces more than 50% of SA’s agricultural exports, with the EU being one of the biggest export destinations. The region also accounts for almost 75% of annual offshore wine sales, worth R5bn.

The drought has already taken a toll on agricultural production. An analysis by economists in the Western Cape department of agriculture found that a 10% reduction in yields as a result of the drought could cost the economy R3.2bn and place 17,000 jobs under threat.

“Our research also shows that a 30% loss of agricultural water in the Western Cape could lead to losses in farm income to the total of R309m,” says provincial economic opportunities MEC Alan Winde.

Apple exports are down 9% and pears 6% on 2016 as a direct result of the drought, says fruit industry body Hortgro.

“We might run into trouble now if it doesn’t start raining soon and a lot‚” Hortgro GM for trade and markets Jacques du Preez says. “The ongoing drought will have a negative knock-on effect on next year’s crop. The degree has yet to be determined‚ but the trees have taken stress.”

The effect of the drought is getting worse and more devastating, says Carl Opperman, CEO of Agri Western Cape, a body that represents farmers.

“Although we are thankful for every drop, the rainfall over the past few weeks had no impact on agriculture in the province. There are no more pastures in the province and roughage hasn’t been available for months in the province. The province has also seen a massive reduction in livestock as the drought continues.”

Regarding orchards and vineyards, Opperman says that no water is available for after-crop irrigation. This, he says, will have an effect on the 2018 harvest.

The deciduous fruit and wine industry has a well-established base in the province. “If any of these industries are suffering, it is detrimental to the South African agricultural industry as a whole, as well as the local economy,” he says.

“The Western Cape is responsible for about 24% of SA’s total GDP. The agricultural industry’s total contribution to the Western Cape’s GDP is 4%. Agriculture, as well as the agricultural processing sector, is responsible for 18% of the province’s employment opportunities.”

Making matters worse for farmers, says Opperman, is inadequate drought relief.

To date Agri Western Cape has distributed 5,500 tonnes of feed donated to the drought relief fund at a cost of R4m, which was also donated but is now depleted, Opperman says. “The problem now is financial constraints and the supply of fodder. We are thankful for feed donations from the northern provinces, but the transport is extremely expensive and we are totally dependent on contributions,” he says.

Winde says the drought has forced some farmers to reduce farming activities, particularly in respect of planting, and this may have contributed to slower growth in jobs in the sector.

To mitigate the effect of the drought on jobs in agriculture, the Western Cape department of agriculture has allocated R73m to farmers in the past year, he says.

“We have reallocated our equitable share budget to continue our support to farmers, and we have purchased over 105 tonnes of animal fodder.

“However, we estimate a shortfall of R96m, which will cover assistance for farmers for a period of five months,” says Winde.

The need for drought relief will increase over the next few weeks as more municipalities — including Hessequa, Mossel Bay, George and Oudtshoorn — complete their drought declarations.

Up to this point, the national Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has allocated just R12m to farmers to buy animal feed, Winde says.

As the wait for the rain continues, the provincial government remains hopeful that its strategic interventions in the agricultural sector will yield some positive results.

Since the launch in 2015 of Project Khulisa, the provincial government’s economic growth strategy, jobs in agriculture and agri-processing have increased 8%.

Figures from Statistics SA’s latest quarterly labour force report, released earlier in July, show 215,300 people are employed in primary agriculture, 144,966 as agri-processing workers and 100,106 as agri-processing support workers, the total representing 17.6% of all people employed in the province.

This is an increase of 32,847 since the first quarter of 2015, Winde points out.

These gains could be reversed should the crippling drought persist.