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2019 one of the worst rainfall years in 120 years in Eastern Cape

Jan 6, 2020
2019 one of the worst rainfall years in 120 years in Eastern Cape

Port Elizabeth - The Port Elizabeth office of the South African Weather Service has released the official 2019 rainfall figures - and they do not paint a pretty picture for the western half of the Eastern Cape, with almost every station recording record low figures.

"This area received an average of only 57% of its average total annual rainfall, with Grahamstown being the worst at 46%," described Garth Sampson, Client Liaison Offficer Easter Cape South African Weather Service.

"The Eastern half of the Eastern Cape faired must better receiving 78% of its yearly total with Dohne receiving the lowest at 53%of its total."

Sampson said that 2019 was one of the worst rainfall years in 120 years along the south coast and especially the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan area and surrounds.

"The 2019 rainfall records paint a sad picture of the state of the water situation that faces the metro. The list of records that have been broken is as long as an arm," he added.

"The end of the second decade of the 21st century, was almost an exact repeat of the start of the 2nd decade of the 20th century. 110 years ago - in 1920, the lowest total annual rainfall of 349 mm was measured at the then Driftsands Forestry station, which is in close proximity of the present Airport's rain gauge.

"A 110 years later, in 2019, the Airport recorded the 3rd lowest figure in history of 395 mm."

Sampson further said that 2019 was thus one of only three years that recorded an annual total of under 400mm (these being 1920 at 349 mm, 1927 at 393 mm and 2019 at 395 mm).

"What makes the 2019 record even more significant is that the 1920 and 1927 records occurred in-between wet periods, whereas 2019 occurred in a prolonged dry period," he explained.

"In fact, the last 4 years (2016 to 2019) was the first time in history that four consecutive years have recorded under 500 mm. Added to that, the last 2 years appear in the top 10 list of record lows, with 2018 at position 7 and 2019 at position 3.

"An even scarier statistic is that no less than 4 record lows occurred in the last 20 years, these being 2019 at 3rd, 2008 at 4th, 2010 at 5th and 2018 at 7th."

Eastern Cape Rainfall in Review : Average vs 2019

Annual total in mm 
WESTERN HALFAverage2019% of average
Graaf Reinet30015953%
Fort Beaufort43225759%
Port Elizabeth62639563%
Port Alfred61638062%
Average  57%
Annual total in mm 
EASTERN HALFAverage2019% of average
Barkley East62547175%
East London82255067%
Average  78%


Is this the worst Eastern Cape drought on record?

"Before answering this question, one must realise that droughts are categorized as a meteorological, hydrological and agricultural drought," Sampson said.

"If we look at the first 7 years of the drought after the 1981 floods, the average rainfall was a mere 512 mm compared to the long term average of 626 mm.

"After the heavy rains of 2012, the next 7 years to date yielded an average of 519 mm. One would thus think that the 1980/90's drought was worse, viewing the figures."

He added that, however, one must take into consideration that there were major socio-political changes post 1994 and there has been a major increase in population, thus putting more strain on the scarce water resources.

What is the outlook for the rest of the summer season?

Sampson said that the rest of the season, up to April 2020 does not look promising and below average rainfall is forecast.

Is the Eastern Cape drought a result of climate change?

"Not being an expert in this field I try and avoid comment on the subject," Sampson explained.

"Weather and climate is cyclical by nature and there will always be peaks and troughs.

"Considering this, the advocates of climate change claim that with climate change, peaks and troughs will be higher and lower."

He said that 2012 was the highest non flood year on record and 7 years later we have the 3rd lowest year on record.

"That must mean something," Sampson added. 

"If we look at the seriously deep trough we are in at the moment, if the advocates of climate change theories are correct, then we are in for a serious flood/extreme rainfall event in the not too distant future." 

Are there any other strange occurrences that you have observed with the weather during 2019?

"I reported that spring was one of the hottest in the region, towards the end of 2019. However, observing the Port Elizabeth Wind Rose for December, I have noted an extremely high incidence of easterly winds for the month of December," Sampson added.

"In other words an increase in onshore flow, hence the constant cloudy conditions. This is a typical February/March scenario. December is typified by strong afternoon south westerly winds, hence the tourists named us the windy city.

"I will be investigating if this is a record at a later stage."

Any advise to the public?

"Yes we are in the height of a drought that could be broken at any time, but could last another 3 years and beyond, as occurred in the 1980/90's. EVERY member of the public must be constantly aware of the importance of using water sparingly," Sampson added.

"However, as the history of the region shows, these droughts are almost always broken by a flood. Considering that we are well overdue for a flood of the proportion of 1908, 1968 and 1981, coupled with the warnings of the advocates of climate change, a serious extreme event is on the horizon. WHEN EXACTLY is the BIG question.

"Being prepared is the key word here. Make sure all storm water drains in your area and even your house gutters are always clean. If you see major blocked drains, report them to your municipal official or councillor. BUT ABOVE ALL, use the little water we have conservatively."

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