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Australian agricultural research lifeline for drought-plagued South Africa

Date of Publication: 
Monday, February 12, 2018

Australian ingenuity could be the solution to save South Africa from devastating drought in the future. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), together with the University of Pretoria, is working to deliver a system to revolutionise water management in the agricultural sector, which is facing extensive crop wipe-out and job losses as the taps begin to run dry without a cloud in sight.

Cape Town’s water supply is rapidly diminishing as the city continues to race towards Day Zero, when the average level of all reservoirs serving the city falls below 13.5 per cent and the taps will be turned off. The result of a three-year drought, population growth and climate change, Cape Town dams have been drained to under 26 per cent capacity pushing the people and the agricultural sector to breaking point. The last 10 per cent of a dam’s water is almost unusable.

Support to better utilise South Africa’s precious water resource is a necessity, which is why ACIAR, together with the University of Pretoria, has established the Virtual Irrigation Academy (VIA) in South Africa. The VIA manages the most efficient use of scarce water resources using new technology and social learning for farmers and irrigation officers to best adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The state-of-the-art Chameleon technology is the key to connecting the VIA system to South African farmers. By measuring the soil quality and determining where roots are and how much water to provide each root, Chameleon sensors are designed to substantially improve the delivery of water to crops and ensure not a single drop is wasted.

In 2017 the South African agricultural sector reported more than 100,000 job losses countrywide, with more expected without intervention. It is expected that there will be a sharp increase in those dependent on government welfare and a fall in agricultural exports, impacting GDP. Some farmers are also being forced to slaughter their livestock due to the shortage of fodder. ACIAR hopes to prevent the fallout from this devastating drought from worsening by making the VIA system available to more farmers.

ACIAR Chief Scientist Dr Dan Walker said VIA has the potential to save farmers, important crops and ensure South Africa does not go hungry.

“The flow on effects of a withering agricultural sector due to drought are currently a dangerous and damaging reality for South Africa,” Dr Walker said.

“Ensuring there is enough water supply is only one part of the puzzle, we need to address the demand side too.”

“ACIAR is delivering the VIA and Chameleon technology to save crops, jobs and lives in South Africa and other water-stressed countries. While it is too late to fix this drought, the technology has the potential to see that it is the last.” 

The South African agricultural sector represents 10 per cent of the country’s jobs and contributed around 12 per cent to South Africa’s total export earnings in the 2016 financial year at a value of $9.2 billion USD. Citrus, table grapes and apples accounted for the largest exports by value, with the nation also being the seventh biggest international wine producer.

The VIA system has been in development since 2015 in Malawi and Tanzania and was extended to South Africa in March 2017 through a partnership with the University of Pretoria. ACIAR is continuously improving the prototype of Chameleon to reduce the cost of production and the price for farmers, in addition to making it more user-friendly.

Currently, the VIA system and Chameleon technology is being installed into a demonstration and training hub at the University of Pretoria’s experimental farm. Discussions have begun for the production and distribution of the Chameleon in Africa.

Media contact:

Matthew Mahon, 0413 101 860

Alexander Baranikow, 0438 838 322