Image sourced from www.orangeriverwines.com
The agricultural sector of the lower Orange River region is facing a
time bomb as a result of the national government's delay in paying
compensation for the damages the region incurred during devastating
floods in January 2011. This region in the vicinity of Upington is the
Northern Cape's economic and social hub.
Farmers, agricultural organisations and community leaders are at their wits’ end, especially with regards the 130-odd levees that are in urgent need of repair. The levees prevent the river from flooding orchards, vineyards and pastures between the eastern Boegoeberg and western Augrabies areas.
Agri Northern Cape General Manager Johan van Rensburg says a slight increase of the water level in this 300km long stretch of the Orange River will result in the same degree of devastation as in 2011 when flood waters caused damage of more than R3-billion to the region’s agricultural activities. These activities comprises mostly vineyards for table grapes, viticulture, grape juice and juice concentrate, as well as raisins.
“The national government’s Department of Agriculture has granted R351m for damages incurred, but not a cent has reached the farmers to help them repair the levees. This is because the Department is insisting that farmers – excluding developing farmers – must fund 50% of the repair costs themselves,” Van Rensburg explains.
“Given the current climate, farmers can’t possibly do this. Repairs to the levees cannot begin before the Department has considered the requests from Agri Northern Cape and the local agricultural trade that the Department fully funds this work.”
Herman Cruywagen, Managing Director of Orange River Cellars, which represents 900 vineyard growers in the region between Boegoeberg and Augrabies and is involved in viticulture as well as the production of grape juice and juice concentrate, says the entire region’s agriculture industry is sitting on a time bomb.
“There are no levees or emergency barrages to keep the river from flooding the vineyards and prevent roads and bridges from being washed away,” cautions Cruywagen. “Some farmers funded the repair of levees themselves, but these were mainly temporary efforts. So far we have been fortunate that there hasn’t been an increase in the river’s water level during the summer rainfall season. The river usually rises to between one and two metres high. During the devastating 2011 flood this increased to seven metres.
“Because there aren’t currently any levees to protect the farmlands and vineyards, a water level rise of up to four metres – three metres higher than normal - will result in the same amount of damage we experienced in 2011. Our vineyards and agricultural infrastructure are at the mercy of nature.”
Orange River Cellars harvests between 140 000t and 160 000t of grapes annually and is one of South Africa’s largest wineries.
According to Johan van Rensburg, representatives of the national Department of Agriculture visited the region to see the scope of and assess the flood damages caused 18 months ago.
“Unfortunately this didn’t result in the necessary grasp of the situation’s urgency – this is clear from the fact that farmers are still waiting on assistance to build the levees,” he says. “We really are desperate and the farming community is stressed and confused because there is no plan on the table for the effective distribution of funds.”
One of the main sources of anxiety is the possibility of further job losses if the Orange River should burst its banks again.
According to Herman Cruywagen, 15 000 people are permanently employed by local vineyard growers, while seasonal work such as pruning and harvesting provides income to an additional 70 000 people.
“If you include the amount of dependants the vine-growing industry alone employs, as well as the fact that large areas of the region’s economy are dependent on people working in the agricultural industry, the prospect of another flood is a particularly gloomy one.
“We survived the 2011 flood to a degree, even though the results of a smaller harvest are still being felt. But if the river floods our lands again, the prospects are simply horrifying.”
Rico Basson, Executive Director of Vinpro which represents wine producers from across South Africa, believes the damage to the Orange River wine industry will be felt by the national wine economy.
“The Orange River region’s wine farms are of exceptional importance to the entire wine industry,” Basson says. “Not only because the cellars provide wine for the local and export market, but also because they make an active contribution to the South African agricultural economy by providing job opportunities and by being an economic hub of the Upington region.”