El Niño and its impact on Zim’s food security

This year’s El Niño phenomenon, the strongest in recent decades, may have passed its severest phase, but changes in global weather will continue to wreak havoc on food production across Africa for months if not years to come.

The Ritesh Anand Column

The severe drought in the country and flash floods in other parts of the world triggered by this year’s El Niño have had a devastating effect on food security throughout the world, leaving some 100 million people worldwide with food and water shortages.

Zimbabwe has declared a state of disaster as drought has caused general crop failure. According to reports, as many as 2,5 million people or more than a quarter of the population, are in need of food aid. Climate change is real and needs to be taken seriously by leaders across Africa and the world at large.

Researchers have suggested that harsh El Niño patterns, like the one experienced this year, could become more common as global warming increases ocean temperatures. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers concluded that the likelihood of a “super El Niño” doubles with climate change, from one roughly every 20 years to one every 10 years.

Zimbabwe is considered a low-income, food deficit country, ranked at 156 out of 187 on the 2014 UNDP Human Development Index. Currently, 72% of the population lives below the national poverty line (living on less than US$1,25 per day). About 30% of the rural poor are considered to be “food poor” or “extremely poor”.

Food security and nutrition remain fragile and subject to natural and economic shocks in Zimbabwe. Chronic malnutrition remains relatively high despite some improvements. Dietary diversity is generally poor and consumption of protein is insufficient. Only 11% of Zimbabwean children (6-23 months) receive a minimum acceptable diet. One-third of Zimbabwe’s children are stunted.

In recent years, food production in Zimbabwe has been devastated by a number of factors, including natural disasters and economic and political indecisiveness. Recurrent drought (due to increasingly erratic rainfall patterns), a series of poor harvests, high unemployment, restructuring of the agriculture sector and a high HIV and Aids prevalence rate — at 14,7%, the fifth highest in the world — have all contributed to increasing levels of vulnerability and acute food insecurity since 2001. This situation has necessitated large-scale humanitarian food relief operations in the country.

According to the World Food Program (WFP), rural poverty has increased from 63% in 2003 to 76% in 2014. Most households in the rural areas are net food buyers: they do not produce enough food to meet their needs through to the next harvest and as a consequence, have to rely on markets and other non-farm sources such as casual labour to bridge the food gap to the next season. As such, a number of people in rural areas will struggle to meet their daily food needs.

Zimbabwe’s 2014/15 agricultural season registered a 51% decline in maize production compared to the 2013/14 season due to drought which was particularly severe in the south of the country. According to recent reports, the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac) estimates that 2,5 million people — 24% of the rural population — face food shortages. This represents a 270% increase on the numbers of food-insecure people during 2013/14. It is a shame when one considers that less than two decades ago Zimbabwe was self-sufficient and regarded as the breadbasket of the region.

According to data from the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe (CFU), maize production has declined from 1,5 million tonnes in 2000 to less than one million tonnes in 2015. Wheat production has fallen even more sharply from 314 000 tonnes in 2000 to less than 14 tonnes in 2015.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rwanda’s farmers produced 792 000 tonnes of grain in 2014 — more than three times as much as in 2000. In East Africa maize production has jumped seven-fold over the last decade. Cereal production tripled in Ethiopia between 2000 and 2014. The value of crops grown in Cameroon, Ghana and Zambia has risen by at least 50% in the past decade; Kenya has done almost as well. At this rate Zimbabwe should be producing no less than three million tonnes of maize and over 600 000 tonnes of wheat today.

Zimbabwe continues to face economic challenges, which have implications on food security, especially for vulnerable groups in rural areas. Due to deflation, household incomes remain low and liquidity challenges affect the demand for goods and services, especially for poor households. Barter is a common form of exchange during lean periods. Where grain is used for such transactions, household food stocks tend to get exhausted at a faster rate.

In July 2015, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the government of Zimbabwe launched a Zero Hunger Strategic Review.

This provides an overview of the food and nutrition security situation in the country and establishes an understanding of the country’s demographics and socio- economic context. It compares the provisions of the UN Secretary-General’s global Zero Hunger Challenge with the prevailing situation regarding food and nutrition security and outlines the causes of hunger in the country and presents the key drivers of food and nutrition security. It aims to refocus attention on the critical issues needed to accelerate the attainment of zero hunger in Zimbabwe.

The devastating impact of the El Niño phenomenon on agriculture is, however, being felt across Africa. Climate change is real and it is time African leaders pay close attention to the impact of climate change on food security.

Zimbabwe remains especially vulnerable given the challenging macro-economic conditions.

Once considered the breadbasket of the region, it can no longer feed itself and poverty levels have increased over the last decade. Government needs to pay urgent attention to restoring agricultural productivity and I hope that one day we can once again be the proud nation that not only feeds itself, but also provides food for the region.


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