Despite floods in the north of South Africa, farmers to the south are grappling with an unprecedented crisis. One of the Eastern Cape’s largest dams, Kouga which supplies irrigation water to the fertile Gamtoos valley, looks set to run dry for the first time ever.

The dam is just over 6% full, and the lowest release level of the dam is about 3%. This situation has put the citrus harvest at risk for many farmers who do not have access to alternative sources of water. The situation is already dire for cash crop and dairy farmers.

The dam, which was built in 1969 and last overflowed in 2015, has never dropped below the 6.5% watermark. The last citrus season delivered a bumper export crop, despite a water quota of only 20% of the normal amount.

Chief Executive Officer of the Gamtoos Irrigation Board, Rienette Colesky, says the six-year drought is now taking its toll.  “The level of 6.55% has never been so low, farmers are really going through a bad time. We have already closed some of their taps. The water allocation is from 1 July to 30 June, so they have a few months left. We need rain in the next 2-3 months to augment the water supply in the Kouga Dam. Not only for this year but also for the next water year.”

This situation endangers the citrus harvest for many farmers who might not be able to water their crops further. But farmers have made contingency plans, with some trying boreholes, but the water is mostly not suitable for agriculture. Others use tankers to bring water to their dams, which is not sustainable. Expensive netting helps to prevent wind damage and evaporation. Farmer Khaya Katoo had to uproot old trees.

“Obviously it was not producing to the optimum. But we had to uproot it because we planted young trees, we now use this water to irrigate the young trees. So we cannot cut this block totally. That means we have to cut some staff as well.”

Dairy and citrus farmer Tertius Meyer stands in a dry river bed.

“We are very dependant on this river for irrigation purposes. Our irrigation schedule is lagging behind. Fruit sizes are not as they should be and we predict smaller fruit, which means less income.  I have a few cattle and there is hardly any food left. You have to decide if you are going to sell or start feeding.”

The limited water allocations have had a devastating effect on the planting of cash crops and the watering of pastures for dairy farming. Some orchards are left to die. The fruit seems to be smaller. It was also one of the hottest summers on record.

But hopes are high that the situation will change in the historical rainy months from March to October.

Parts of the province have recently experienced heavy rains: