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In South Africa, Parched Crops, Near Empty Reservoirs - 2003-12-22

A drought in South Africa is emptying reservoirs and parching crops, raising fears of a failed corn harvest and skyrocketing prices of the country's staple food.

This has been a dry year for South Africa. Twenty-seven-percent of the country has had the lowest amount of annual rainfall since the country began keeping records in 1915. Farmers are warning that rain is needed soon to prevent widespread crop failure in several key agricultural areas.

But although some rainfall is expected next week, the overall prediction for the country in the coming month is hot and dry.

Most of the country's corn, known as maize, should have been planted by now, but dry soil has forced many farmers to delay. Johan van den Berg, an agro-meteorologist with the consultancy group EnviroVision, says commercial corn farmers have planted only 60 to 70-percent of the predicted crop. Even in a best-case scenario, he says, harvests will be 10 to 15-percent lower than usual.

"Planting time, the transplanting time, ended in the second week of December, so although there are some a week or two left for some planting. It's already very late."

A poor harvest in South Africa, Southern Africa's largest agricultural producer, could affect the region. Rising prices have already forced the World Food Program to purchase the grain elsewhere for its regional food relief operations.

A spokesman for the organization, Richard Lee, says a South African drought could have an impact on the World Food Program's ability to respond effectively to the ongoing food crises in countries like Zimbabwe.

"Clearly if the drought continues, if the maize price rises, then we will not be able to source from here and that has made a big difference a big difference in the past few months and the past few years. We have been able to buy maize in South Africa and get it to hungry people in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia much more quickly and more effectively. So it will slow down our operations."

The drought could also affect the W-F-P's plans to scale-back aid in the region. While some countries that have been receiving food aid, like Malawi, are expected to have good harvests this year, the unusually low rainfall will keep others, like Lesotho, in need of international assistance at a time when funding is low.

With high temperatures in South Africa and reservoirs across the country under severe pressure, officials are asking even individual users to conserve water. Some small reservoirs used by farmers to irrigate their crops are already dry, while large reservoirs feeding urban populations are holding only a fraction of their capacity.

While officials say it is not likely that the country will run out of water for household use, high prices for corn, South Africa's staple food, and poor harvests for small farmers could make this a difficult holiday season for many.