Low Orange River threatens grape exports

20 February 2019 | Agriculture

The dangerously low water level of the Orange River could have a devastating impact on Namibia's production of table grapes, an important export product earning hundreds of millions in foreign exchange.

Commenting on his Twitter feed, Robert McGregor, an economist with Cirrus Capital, said this year was likely to be another poor year for agriculture in Namibia.

“Five of the past seven years have been drought years and this year is set to add to the tally. This does not bode well for the agriculture sector, one of the largest employers in this depressed economy,” he wrote.

McGregor pointed out that according to the 2016 Namibia Labour Force Survey (latest available), unemployment stood at 34%.

“Given the economic depression, this has no doubt risen.”

The survey indicates that the agriculture sector lost a massive

89 540 jobs between 2014 and 2016, when the country was suffering consecutive drought years.

The sector, which is one of the largest employers in the country and also one of the biggest contributors to the GDP, shed more than 50% of its jobs during this period.

In 2014, 165 000 people were employed as skilled labourers in the agriculture sector. Last year this number dropped to 75 714.

The 2018 labour force survey is expected to be released in the next few months.

“While much attention is drawn to livestock and crop farming, and rightly so, another problem has been highlighted recently in the news,” McGregor wrote.

“Residents and farmers have been complaining about the dangerously low water levels of the Orange River.”

It has been reported that Namibian grape farmers along the Orange River suspect that increased water use upstream by South African grape farmers was the cause of the lower part of the river running dry.

Namibian grape farmers say the lower Orange River is not supposed to ever run dry, as there is enough water in the Orange-Vaal River system following good rains in its catchment areas.

They believe there is a lack of control over water use in areas upstream. McGregor agreed that given decent rains in the catchment areas in South Africa, the river level should not be this low.

According to the latest river bulletin issued by the hydrological department in the agriculture ministry, the level of the Orange River at Blouputs stood at 0.51 metres this week and at Sendelingsdrift at 0.19 metres.

“Very low levels are observed on the lower Orange River at our hydrological stations, namely Blouputs and Sendelingsdrift. Users should take note of the fluctuating low levels and take the necessary precautionary measures,” the bulletin warned. McGregor said these low water levels could devastate an important Namibian export product, namely table grapes, grown under irritation on the banks of the Orange River. He said the hot climate means that Namibia's grapes ripen very early, allowing the country to capture a premium market.

During the financial year 2017/18, Namibian table grape exports were valued at slightly over N$636 million – more than all other horticultural exports combined.

Statistics provided by the Agro-Marketing and Trade Agency (Amta) indicate that during the 2016/17 financial year Namibia exported 23 884 tonnes of table grapes to Europe (6%) Asia (6%), Africa (2%) and other countries (2%). This earned Namibia more than N$566.8 million in foreign exchange.

“Namibia being a net importer and running a trade deficit, these grapes earn us much-needed hard currency and contribute to our forex reserves, helping guarantee the 1:1 peg to the rand.

“These growers also hire a significant number of people. Losing these farms would not only see us lose out on crucial hard currency earnings, but would further add to the higher unemployment and poverty in the areas where they operate,” said McGregor.

The agriculture ministry has not responded to questions about the low level of the Orange River and complaints about a misuse of water quotas by South Africa.

ELLANIE SMIT

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