JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa is reeling from unusually heavy rainfall that has caused flooding in many parts of the country, wiping out crops in what is the continent’s main breadbasket.
More than 120 people have been killed in the thunderstorms and flooding since mid-December, and some 20,000 people are in need of assistance. The South African government has declared disaster areas in eight of its nine provinces.
And it’s not over yet. Above-average rainfall is forecast for South Africa and neighboring countries for the next few months.
Much of southern Africa is now on flood alert, including Mozambique, where at least 13 people have died from floods and thousands have fled their homes for higher ground. Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia are also on alert for flooding.
While this is the annual rainy season in southern Africa, the heavier than usual rainfall has been blamed on La Nina, the weather pattern behind the severe flooding in other southern hemisphere countries including Australia, Brazil and the Philippines.
In South Africa, the government has put the flood damage at $211 million, but this is an early estimate and expected to rise. At least 13,000 homes have been damaged by the floods across the country, including thousands of shacks washed away, according to the National Disaster Management Center. Squatter communities known as “informal settlements” have been most affected as they are often built near rivers and in other low-lying areas.
The South African government, criticized for being poorly prepared to deal with the heavy rains, announced Thursday that it had stepped up its humanitarian efforts, including increased coordination with local authorities, to help people affected by the floods and to "minimize loss of lives" in further flooding.
Health authorities are on alert for outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases in South Africa and throughout the region. There are also concerns that the torrential rains will trigger an outbreak of Rift Valley Fever, a livestock disease that last year killed 26 people and 8,500 animals in South Africa.
Floods have so far cost South African farmers $284 million, including damage to farm infrastructure and lost crops, said the farmers group Agri SA, but a full assessment can only be done once the water recedes. The crops most affected by the flooding are corn, sunflowers and grapes grown to make raisins.
Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson this week promised government assistance to farmers in the form of replacing infrastructure, seeds and fertilizer, but said there would be no financial compensation.
She warned that the floods would result in rising food prices because of supplies being affected.
Earlier this month, heavy rains delayed and derailed trains, disrupting exports of coal and corn, said South African logistics firm Transnet.
Joe Gondo, president of the National African Farmers’ Union of South Africa, said that the system of dams on South Africa’s swollen rivers needs to be improved in the longterm. But for now, all farmers can do is brace for difficult months ahead, he said.
“For now, when the rain comes, this is a God-made thing. You can’t stop the rain,” Gondo said.
The South African Weather Service on Wednesday issued warnings of heavy rains expected for the next few days in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West provinces. The country’s biggest dam, the Gariep, is 112 percent full and rising, and the Vaal Dam is at 100 percent capacity.
Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini has appealed to the public to help with donations, saying that many provinces are running out of money to help those affected by the floods.
“Without sounding alarmist, I would like to highlight the fact that we are in a race against time to respond to the humanitarian needs of those affected,” Dlamini said in a media briefing.
Most of the deaths have occurred in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province, with 88 people recorded killed in the storms and floods, according to a report by Dlamini’s ministry. In the Eastern Cape province, widespread hail storms have damaged property, livestock and crops, and 21 people have died. Lightning strikes and tornados have also caused deaths and property damage.
In nearby Mozambique, which has also been battered by torrential rains, the government has issued a “red alert” for potential floods in the country’s central and southern regions, putting disaster relief workers on standby.
In 2000, Mozambique was devastated by widespread flooding that killed 800 people, destroyed infrastructure and caused massive losses to agricultural production.