Limpopo, South Africa: The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) call on policymakers and research-for-development organisations to take action to mitigate the possible impacts of El Nino rains.

The agencies say the current developing El Niño event will impact small-scale farmers and rural communities and have called on actors to keep tracking seasonal climate fluctuations.

Multiple climate prediction centers have concurred that this El Niño event will reach a “strong” category in the Northern Hemisphere by the winter of 2023-24.

El Niño events are characterised by sustained increases in sea surface temperatures over the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean, due to weakened trade winds from the west, resulting in the accumulation of abnormally warm waters.

The climate effects of this typically include reduced rainfall, higher temperatures, and shifts in temperature extremes. The current El Niño event is predicted to reach its peak between November 2023 and February 2024, according to seasonal predictions of sea surface temperature anomalies.

The Limpopo River basin in southern Africa is anticipated to experience lower rainfall and higher-than-average temperatures from June to November 2023.

Although the forecast fluctuations are generally low during this period, there are concerns about a negative impact on rainfall in the Limpopo Basin, particularly in November, which marks the beginning of the rainy season. The lower-than-average rainfall could potentially delay planting dates for crops like maize in 2023, leading to decreased yields due to heat and water stress later in the 2023/24 season.

Furthermore, the forecast indicates that mean temperatures in the Limpopo Basin are expected to be above average from June to November 2023. High temperatures accompanied by rainfall shortage in November could exacerbate water deficits and environmental stress for maize seedlings.

IWMI and CIMMYT recommend that governments, research organizations, and farm support agencies take proactive measures to mitigate the potential impacts on the Limpopo Basin.

This includes considering the use of maize cultivars tolerant to water and thermal stress, as well as promoting management practices to retain soil moisture and increase water use efficiency.

According to Dr Blessing Mhlanga, Ukama Ustawi Work Package 1 Co-Lead: Diversification and Sustainable Intensification of Maize-Based Farming Systems and Cropping Systems Agronomist (CIMMYT), the importance of good agricultural practices that fall under conservation agriculture cannot be overstated.

“Timely planting and the use of stress-tolerant varieties are crucial practices, especially under the changing climatic conditions as faced by the Limpopo River Basin region. Digital warning systems are vital to educating farmers on the right time to plant to reduce the devastating effects of water stress on crops” said the official.

The historical record of maize yields in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe during El Niño years shows a mean decline in yields.

El Niño