To anyone passing through Beaufort West, the town seems like a typical, quiet Karoo “dorpie”. But its problems run deep. The “capital of the Karoo” proudly states that it is the country’s oldest municipality, but it also holds another, more undesirable title – that of the driest town.
Its main water source, the Gamka Dam, dried up completely in November, leaving the municipality scrambling to sink more boreholes in order to keep taps open. Its failsafe – a sewage purification plant installed after a similar calamity in 2010 – remains precariously dependent on some kind of water flow through the town’s infrastructure.
The arid Central Karoo district is the worst affected area in the Western Cape, as a devastating drought holds the province in its grip. Provincial leadership is majorly concerned about the impact on the agricultural sector, which is the backbone of the region’s economy.
Even farmers who are accustomed to life in this arid region are finding their resolve tested as increasingly unseasonal, erratic rainfall drives some to the edge of despair. Others have no choice but to cling to the hope that the drought will soon break.
This is the story of the people who reside in and around the town, and how their daily lives and livelihoods are affected by the protracted dry spell. This is a window to a future where the Western Cape becomes ever drier. This is life without any guarantee of a steady water supply. This is the land of thirst.
Like his father before him, Wynand Vivier lives for farming. He grew up on Boesmanskop, an angora goat and sheep farm about 30km outside of Beaufort West, and has been running the family business since 1976.
He gazes mournfully at his flock that rushed over towards his bakkie, desperate for food. It’s a sad sign of the times. Under normal circumstances, the animals would be more skittish and would get their sustenance by grazing on the vast farm. But these days they associate the vehicle’s arrival with a temporary end to their gnawing hunger.
The changing weather patterns of the past few years have wreaked havoc with the plant growth that used to sustain Vivier’s livestock. While, in the past, rain fell between February and May, he says it now falls between September and November, with the dry summer wind relentlessly whipping away the moisture
Even his dorper sheep – a breed known for its hardiness – now need fodder and supplements to survive. And it comes at a great expense.
While the mielies and supplements he buys do keep the animals alive, there is no denying their weakened condition. A cold snap at a nearby farm higher up on the mountain finished off a herd of goats – their bodies not strong enough to handle the sudden drop in temperature.
The “lick blocks” bought to provide extra nutrition for the animals, seem to have been responsible for killing at least three of his sheep. The animals ingested too much of one of the components, he speculates.
But Vivier says his gates will remain open until the day he retires, because starting over is not an option.
“The problem is my age. I am 64, so it’s not easy to go and borrow money and work it off,” he explains.
He has resigned himself to the fact that his two children will not be following in his footsteps. Both earn a far better living in the city than they would out here.
“There’s no good reason to bring your children to the farming business,” he says matter-of-factly.
Farming used to be the lifeblood of this region, but times are changing. He laments that the only people still interested in buying Karoo farms are city folk from Cape Town, who dream of tranquil weekend getaways and have no intention of contributing to the local agricultural economy.
When reaching pensionable age, and without offspring interested in carrying on with the business, most farmers opt to sell, he says with a shrug.
“At this moment, I am not prepared to, but in future I will have to sit with my children and decide what to do. I also have to live.”
Putting a rifle to their heads is easier for some farmers than watching their livelihoods waste away and permanently closing their gates, Agri Central Karoo Manager Dean Gous says. This year alone, two farmers in the surrounding area have committed suicide due to financial worries as the drought affects their profits.
“You get to a point where the bank can’t help you,” he laments.
“So instead of saying, ‘I need to lock my gates’, it appears the option is easier to shoot yourself. You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone and then [your family can continue] farming with your insurance payout.”
Farming organisations have resorted to information sessions to discuss the implications of the drought, which Gous says is more than just the physical condition of the land and animals.
“Products don’t just miraculously end up on your supermarket shelves. There are people whose lives revolve around their farming business. It’s who they are, not just what they do. For some, no longer cultivating their fields or seeing to their livestock is simply too much to bear.”
The local economy is also suffering as the price of produce increases.
“You have to cut costs during this time. People are reducing their stock numbers, sometimes even by a third. That may result in work opportunities in our area being lost.”
And the repercussions will not be limited to the district, he warns.
“Your meat prices will rise. It has already gone up from just over R50 to over R70, and even more. That is because there is nothing to market,” Gous says.
“Our lambs stay small because they are not getting the nutrition they need. Water plays a role in what they eat, and if they’re not eating, they’re not growing.”
The animals must be in a good condition to breed, or else they’re suffering, Gous stresses.
Farmers are price-takers and don’t determine the sale price of their products, he explains.
“But as soon as your abattoirs are struggling to get sheep in, the higher the cost.”
While farmers are benefiting from donations of fodder from their counterparts in the rest of the country, what the animals need is the plants on the land, “the natural stuff”.
“Karoo lamb is a registered product, and the criteria includes that you must have five types of bushes on your farm for them to eat. You get a little more per kilogramme, but if those five bushes are not there, you can’t be registered.”
Government intervention has been woefully insufficient, Gous says.
“National government assisted once with a few bags of maize and supplies. That was in November last year. The rest of the monetary [support] comes from the Western Cape government.
“National government budgeted quite a big amount for assistance for farmers, but that vanished into the air somewhere. Other countries give their farmers far more support and subsidies. But that isn’t happening here.”
By Aletta Harrison & Tammy Petersen. Source: News24