South Africa was warned on Wednesday to brace for months of heavy rains and storms as the government admitted it could have been better prepared for floods that have killed more than 120 people.
Weeks of above normal rains, caused by the “La Niña” weather phenomenon – also blamed for deadly floods in Brazil and Australia – have devastated thousands of homes and farms since mid-December.
Disasters have been declared in 33 municipalities in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces.
Emergency services in neighbouring Mozambique were also put on high alert on Wednesday.
“Our sense of what is happening here, it is unprecedented,” said Elroy Africa, South Africa’s department of co-operative governance director general.
“All indications seem to indicate that we need to prepare ourselves for similar patterns of what we are seeing at least for the next couple of months and even beyond that.”
The National Disaster Management Centre has so far confirmed 85 deaths and 13,000 homes destroyed, according to the government news agency BuaNews, while the Social Development Ministry puts the toll at 123.
A further 20,000 needed emergency relief, the ministry said.
Maphaka Tau, a senior disaster official, told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that more could have been done to limit the damage.
“We have a situation that is not normal in our country and if we were well prepared I think we would have dealt with it much better,” he said.
“We still expect that this condition is going to continue until May… and drifting towards the Western Cape around June, July,” he added.
Tau warned that rising reservoir levels were likely and opening of further dam sluices.
Floodwaters pushed downstream have already swelled the vineyard-rich Orange River system in the northern Cape.
Official initial damage estimates were of 1.5 billion rands (211 million dollars, 154 million euros) but an early assessment by organised agriculture is that farmers alone have suffered losses of two billion rands.
“Farmers were quite severely impacted, especially along the Vaal and the Orange rivers, mainly on the grape industry and some small parts of the grain industry, maize and sunflower,” said Dawie Maree, an economist with AgriSA.
“The rough estimate is one billion rand for crop damages and the same amount more or less for infrastructure.”
AgriSA, the national farmers’ organization, said 1,100 farmers were affected in the lower Orange region, where 7,500 hectares (22,000 acres) of farmland had been directly hit and crops could not be delivered from a further 2,200.
The country’s biggest dam, the central Gariep, is already 112 percent full and set to hit 122 percent of its capacity by Saturday, while the Vaal Dam reached 100 percent capacity on Wednesday.
Above normal rains were predicted last year by the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum and the South African Weather Service.
“La Niña season will be weakening toward the month of May, June but as of now it’s still quite strong,” said South African Weather Service forecaster Puseletso Mofokeng.
Heavy rains are forecast for most of southern Africa over the next four to five days including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Mozambique, and as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As Mozambique issued a red alert for floods, water covered entire roads and invaded houses in the suburbs of the town of Chokwe, in central Gaza province, sending women with belongings and firewood tied to their backs fleeing towards higher ground.
“In my house it looks like this,” said mother of seven Delfina Mocavele, 48, gesturing at the waterway she had waded through.
“You can’t even speak of crop fields. It’s all under water. I don’t know what I am going to eat,” she said.