A spell of drought that hit the Eswatini spanning over six months has resulted to the stunting and destruction of 175 hectares of sugar cane. The fields that were mainly affected are in Big Bend, Mhlume, Shewula and Siteki.
This has confirmed a preliminary assessment made in 2017 where it was projected that climate change could severely affect the sugar industry and minimise its sugar exports. This has ultimately resulted in 400 direct employees losing their jobs as they will no longer be harvesting in the affected areas.
The drought led to the only source of irrigation, the Mbuluzi River, running dry in the sugar-cane growing region, which falls under the Lowveld; the driest of the country’s climatic regions.
In a statement issued recently, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy acknowledged the huge amount of economic damage caused by the lack of water resources in the lowveld region.
“Water users benefiting from the irrigation system have incurred damage due to the prolonged non-supply of water as a result of the drought,” Principal Secretary Dorcas Dlamini wrote.
Eswatini is a major sugar producer in Africa as it ranks in fourth position as the largest African sugar producer and at 25th position as the world’s largest producer. It exports most of its sugar to the European Union and Southern Africa Customs Union, contributing about US$285m to the country’s gross domestic product.
The country’s leading export markets for sugar are Portugal, South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda and Namibia. Eswatini farmers have in the past few years (2019 and 2020) increased sugar cane plantation to 70,000 hectares, an increase by eight per cent.
Projections were that improvements in sugar cane yields would be realised if irrigation means were also increased. “Sugar production is forecast to increase by 10 per cent to 800,000 tons in 2019/20 based on an increase in sugar cane delivered to the sugar mills, better quality of sugar cane, and improved sugar mill efficiencies.”
The Eswatini Sugar Association, which is responsible for the marketing of all the produced in Eswatini, had welcomed the projected increased sugar demand and production as the revenue obtained through the sale of sugar and molasses is shared between growers and millers based on an agreed process and formula guided by the Sugar Act of 1967 and Eswatini Sugar Agreement.
A preliminary assessment of climate change impacts on sugarcane in the country revealed that irrigation means needed to be improved and increased by 22 per cent to enable the industry to produce a unit weight of sucrose equivalent to current optimum levels of production.
“With CO2-fertilisation, the impacts of climate change are offset by higher crop yields, such that IRnet is predicted to increase by nine per cent. The study showed that with climate change, the current peak capacity of existing irrigation schemes could fail to meet the predicted increases in irrigation demand in nearly 50 years of years assuming unconstrained water availability,” the assessment revealed. About three years ago Eswatini was hit by a severe El Nino-induced drought which had a great impact on crop production, this led to a drop in production of maize by up to 40 per cent.