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Bucking the trend in the drought

The Western Cape has faced its worst drought in a century, and this is the third consecutive year of that drought.  Cape Town’s mayor has been at pains to point out that — with climate change — “This is the new normal.”

With dwindling water supply to farmers, crop productions have been slashed and, across the Province, between 35,000 and 50,000 jobs are at risk, excluding an even larger number of seasonal workers.  I asked for the provincial department of agriculture’s stats for produce under threat but received no response!  I am underwhelmed!

Minister Alan Winde’s speeches, however, paint a dire picture which are just a tip of the iceberg.  A month ago, Alan visited the West Coast.  “There’s thousands and thousands of hectares of agricultural land below the Clanwilliam Dam which produces a lot of produce and revenue for our country that’s now under severe water restrictions. They’re going to produce 50% less,” he said.  “Farmers are being throttled and are forced to use 60% less water, with the Clanwilliam Dam level at around 36%.  There’s an 80% decrease in potato crops and a drop in wine and export quality citrus.”  With commercial farmers struggling, one focus for Province is supporting backyard food gardens for workers’ food security.

“In places like Ceres, 80% less potatoes and 50% less onions will be planted — resulting in about R40 million less paid out in salaries and wages.  In Lutzville the tomato paste plant will not even open this year.  Some 30 000 animals have been sold as farmers battled to feed their core herds.”

Against this backdrop, Boschendal started out at the beginning of the drought with a massive planting of 600,000 new fruit trees over a period of three years — which has just been completed. Permanent jobs in farming operations alone has grown from 70 to 287.  Their dams are full and Jacques du Toit, Boschendal’s general manager, said the dams started overflowing on 20 August and he counted 15 streams on the farm running into the Dwars River, on to the Berg River, and out to sea…

A rare sight for Capetonians who have become accustomed to seeing photographs of parched dams: York Dam on the slopes of Drakenstein mountain looking across to Simonsberg mountain.  The photographs of the dams were taken on 30 November 2017.
Normandie Dam is alongside York Dam.
Rhodes Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.
Upper Vineyards Dam
Mountain Vineyards Dam on the slopes of Simonsberg mountain.
Rachelfontein Dam
Rachelsfontein Dam, the overflow dam for Mountain Vineyards Dam, with the Matroosberg mountain above Worcester just peaking through in the distance.
Cleaning dams
At the end of last summer, the dams were cleaned and silt removed. Farmers may not increase the size of their dams.  (Crazy, huh?)  At York dam, they found underwater mountains of rubble that had never been removed from the dam when it was constructed.

Boschendal dams (and just some of them are shown above) hold 3½ million cubic metres of water — 3,500 megalitres.  Boschendal relies entirely on its own dams for all agricultural water. It doesn’t draw any water from the Theewaterskloof, Berg River or any State dams for farming operations.

Filling the dams and making the water last is achieved by careful and effective custodianship and management of the land — alien clearing does make a very big difference to water flows from the mountains and nurturing soil quality in the vineyards and orchards sees water use reduced by 30%.  Jacques du Toit keeps repeating: “Soil health is everything.”

Jacques and former CEO, Rob Lundie, spent hours discussing and debating innovations to improve the management of the land.  Rob encouraged all managers to research and innovate — and YouTube is full of inspiration for farmers.  They trialled new orchard blocks where cover crops were planted before and after the new trees were planted.  Planting cover crops after the new trees were established won.  The cover crops are a mix of rye grass, turnips, ciradella, radishes, vetch and red & white clover Boschendal’s Black Angus beef herd grazes on the cover crops… leaving their own goodness behind.

Apart from reducing water usage, the good soil quality also reduces the need for fertilizers by 30%.  Using biological fertilizers, although more expensive, is also better for the soil.

Jacques started soil tests at Rob’s insistence and the orchards gave a reading of only 2.  He went up to the Viewpoint to fetch some topsoil for comparison. “One needs a non-disturbed reference as yardstick.  It was rich and full of earthworms,” he recalls.  “The reading from that soil was 21!  Better than good.”  In the following six months, he managed to improve soil quality in the orchards by 400-600%.”

“Healthy soil holds rain water — the statistics show that 300,000-500,000 litres of water per hectare per 1% increase in humus is saved. You need less irrigation and the land seeps for longer, amongst many other benefits,” says Rob.

Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.
Computer screen in the office showing the status of the probes measuring moisture.

Boschendal is micro-managed.   There are 300 precision probes in the soil measuring moisture every 10cm to a depth of 80cm — one per hectare in the orchards and one every three hectares in the vineyards — with repeaters to the office.

There is an irony to the “bad” alien vegetation… it is being recycled to improve the quality of the soil in the orchards.  It all goes into a chipper — at a rate of 50m³ a day — and 200m³ of wood chips/hectare goes into the topsoil on the orchards.  It’s going to take another two years of chipping before there will be enough for the whole farm.  Distributing the wood chips was a time-consuming process so Jacques designed a machine to do it more efficiently.

Some of the alien vegetation is used to create biochar, which is added to the farm’s composting operation, using waste from the restaurants and winery.  The worm farm on the Estate has become a dedicated operation.

The beef herd, which peaked at nearly 800 cows, has been reduced to 600 — the number best suited to the farm.  Farmer Rico’s pasture-raised chickens also fall under Jacques’ ambit now and will soon have 4000 lay hens and 2000 broilers.  But it’s the pigs that must be the envy of pigs everywhere!  There are three forested camps each of about 2½ hectares in forests where they roam free.

Boschendal's new solar farm
With Eskom’s future looking increasingly bleak and electricity price hikes almost assured, Boschendal’s massive second solar farm producing almost 1 megawatt of electricity has just been commissioned, reducing the farm’s reliance on the national grid.
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Stellenbosch dam above Ida's Valley, with Simonsberg behind
Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley, with Simonsberg behind, was 97% full last week.

What are the lessons from Boschendal?  The most important is that preparation for the drought should have started over three years ago.

The Stellenbosch dam above Ida’s Valley on the other side of Simonsberg was also full and stood at 97% last week,  This has less to do with Stellenbosch municipality and everything to do with the farmers of the Greater Simonsberg Conservancy — who cleared alien vegetation in the catchment area and watercourses above the dam.  Take a bow Tokara and Thelema Estates, for over five years they have continuously cleaned up all alien vegetation.

Cape Town’s mayor is correct when she says “this is the new normal”.  But the City has been preaching Climate Change for nearly 20 years… so why wasn’t it prepared?  Why is the City building temporary desalination plants if this is the new normal?

The mayor recently added alien clearing around Wemmershoek dam to her list of interventions — that’s going to have no impact in the short term because the rains are long past.  Had they started five years ago, clearing alien vegetation in the catchment areas of all Cape Town dams, an expert speaking on CapeTalk radio said the impact would have been the equivalent of building a new full Wemmershoek dam.

The City has failed its citizens, and national government… well… they have neither the competence, the political will nor the funding to make a difference.  The national Department of Water & Sanitation is bankrupt.

Politicians are playing Russian Roulette with the Province’s future.  They focus on politically-expedient decisions rather than long term plans.  I asked one politician what will happen if the drought… the new normal… doesn’t break next winter.  “We’ll all resign,” was the answer.  Now that’s cold comfort!  Maybe a few really good farmers would do a better job of running the City and Province.

Related content:
The Boschendal story
Even the cows have happy lines

9 thoughts on “Bucking the trend in the drought”

  1. This is great news, and well done to Boschendal. Really bucking the trend, as you point out. Sadly, applying their principles and actions to the urban environment doesn’t quite work though. Their storage works well on a small scale – and it’s to their credit – but you can’t just wave a magic wand and multiply it up to sort Cape Town out.

    Sadly(?), I don’t have time to go into detail right now, but herewith a few short answers to some points you make and some questions you pose:

    – A new full Wemmershoek dam would be great, but even a full Wemmershoek dam would only supply the city for an additional 12 days. That would be great, of course, but it’s far from solving the problem.

    – 3 years ago, the city’s dams were over 100% full. You try diverting billions of rands from infrastructure, housing, education etc to desalination when there’s clearly no need for it. There would rightfully be an outcry. The last three years have been the driest on record – an utterly unprecedented situation – and that is why we sit where we do now.

    – You claim that the city has known about this for 20 years. Even if that is true, we’ve been absolutely fine for at least 17 of those years. (
    Again – spending money when there’s a chance of a future calamity sounds like a great idea in principle, but bear in mind that *right now* residents are actually against the city spending money on the water crisis, and we have 3.5 months before the taps run dry.

    – National government have not done enough to assist. Many reasons have been put forward for this lack of effort, but the reasons don’t actually matter. Fighting over them is a distraction and won’t fill the dams. The fact is that the money that should have been available to (further) mitigate the crisis hasn’t been forthcoming.

    And so:

    – The city is building temporary desalination plants because building a permanent one would a) cost over R20 billion, and b) take a decade to complete. That won’t help us right now. Once again though, try finding that R20 billion so that we are better covered in 10 years time and you will encounter resistance from the majority of residents.

    – Basically, the city is stuck between a rock and hard place. We have had over two years of water restrictions being in place. Even now, with Level 6 restrictions having started on 1 January, go and look on social media: half the people are complaining that the rules are too stringent, and half that they don’t go far enough. Quite literally a no win situation.

    – 33% of residents are adhering to the 87l pppd. One third. That’s simply not good enough. The other 67% cannot pretend that they are not aware. They just don’t care. How do we go about changing that? What more can the city do?

    – The actions that the city and pro-active residents have put in place for this situation will serve us well going forward. But we’re still reliant on the weather to save us, simply because it’s the weather that got us into this situation.

    – I’d love to know if that “We will all resign” quote is real. If so, you should name and shame. That’s a despicable attitude.

    All in all, every post like this highlights the desperate situation we are in. But playing the blame game on the city and province is – in the most part – misplaced and unhelpful.

    1. Please provide details of how the last 3 years have been the driest on record. I have seen nothing except the same old CPT Airport stats rolled out – you can’t get data from the SAWB – they want R1000 / station / month and you are not allowed to share the data. DWAF have not updated their website since May and any attempt to get data from them or the people they recommend is stonewalled. Privately collected data paints a different picture from the one we are being told.

      So I am very interested to see the data (non CPT Airport) that shows we have had the driest three years on record.

      1. @Bengine – be aware that politicians and academics have there own reasons for arguing that this is the worst drought on record etc. So keep an open mind! It is difficult to reach a conclusion on the severity of this drought, because only rainfall in the dam catchment areas is relevant, and reliable, long term data from this vast area, from a representative set of stations, is difficult to obtain. Therefore the conflicting conclusions about this drought – see for a very interesting study that suggests the 1926 to 1935 drought was more severe and of longer duration than the present drought. We can safely say that it is certainly one of the very worst droughts on record, and unfortunately, based on Steenbras Dam data from 1926 to 1935, we may well be looking at a prolonged period of below average rainfall.

    2. But you see, you get one serious thing wrong. It is the JOB of government, local and national, to be proactive. So, even if the dams WERE full three years ago, it does not follow that they can sit on their hands. Ants carry food to the nest to store for the lean season, locusts eat what they get. Which one is the best survivor? Yes, the government, local and national, knew about the dangers as far back as 1990. The documentary proof is there. The fact that the existing dams were full three years ago is no excuse at all. It is exactly BECAUSE they played politics with this issue that we are in trouble. Imagine how big their “win” would have been had they prepared for this and we did not have to have such stringent measures. But that is the trouble with politicians – they are in it for the short term only.

  2. The emphasis that this country places on providing jobs, making a profit, and generally celebrating agriculture, cannot sit comfortably with the idea of preservation of the environment – the two are in conflict and always will be. Destroying natural habitat to make way for vineyards, wheat and solar farms, benefits nobody but mankind.

  3. Sadly when it rains in CapeTown no effort has been made ever even when I lived there… when it rained for a week at a time… to harvest and store the water, it runs into the sea, there should be underground cisterns.

  4. The Main Reason Behind No Rain is Simple..Remove the Life/Vegetation off the surface of the Earth you are left with No Sunscreen for the Planet and it will Burn!! The rain does come inland from the sea cause its too radiant and hot and the cold fronts bounce off the hot main land.
    The Water evaporates back into the atmosphere and is not traped in the Vegetation.

    Fyn Bos = Rain. No Fyn Bos = No Rain.

    The fynbos was removed 40 years ago to make space for commercial farming. And slowly over 40years the Climate has changed hoter and hotter and 52 degrees we wont be happy anymore
    So if we fix it now it will still take 40years to kinda restore itself. Or we going to be in for a Wild ride!

    If you see the West Coast or Western Cape from the Air youll see that 99% of the vegetation or “Fyn Bos ” has been removed to plant Crops, Wine and GMO wheat or grass. Food can be grow Indoors with a higher sucsess rate and more Yeild its 2018 !!
    It has left the earth barren, Dry and Full or Chemicals that dont let any other plants grow except the gmo. The gmo Wheat doesnt even grow anymore cause the soil is so Unhealthy from all the chemicals and Nutrients. Now there is no Moisture in the ground cause all the Jungle or Fyn Bos is gone..
    The only way to fix this problem is to try Replant allot of the Fyn bos From West Coast to the Inland Mountains and this will then Restore the Balance.. If you Strip away Nature you just end up with Mars. We need the Public to step up and stand together and buy up the Private Land and rehabilitate the Western Cape fyn bos. Where has the SwartLand Gone? its really gone…

    There is nothing being done about this and it feels like Cape Townias Dont know there is a Man MAde desert just 20km out side Cape Town stretching 1000s of Squre kilometers. Fix your fynbos .The wheat not working for you guys..Import your food and fix the ecosystem and more Life and growth will happen, It will rain again as there will be Renoster bos everywhere. and more water for indoor crops. its a win win…our generations before us didnt think of 2018

    Stop living in a bubble and come fix what greedy companies destroyed..this can be fixed, its not impossible. In India they replanted a Area of the same size and it is raining 1000% more and the ground water Aqua-firs have been restored

    Dont leave it up to the Old people they were greedy ,only the Millennials now can Fix or Break this world.

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