Drought spectre evokes bad memories

MANY Zimbabweans who experienced the 1991-92 drought, recorded by the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) as the worst drought in living memory, still vividly remember its devastating effects.

Wongai Zhangazha

Most people, including those relatively well off, found the going tough due to massive food shortages countrywide.
Due to maize-meal shortages the sadza staple had to be cooked from unfamiliar and inferior yellow maize meal, commonly referred to as Kenya and said to be stockfeed in other countries. Millions of children were put on supplementary feeding at schools and clinics to control high levels of malnutrition.

Due to the severe water and food shortages more than a million cattle died — in excess of 23% of the national herd according to a 1993 Sadc-Zimbabwe country assessment paper. Subsequent droughts, though lesser in impact, resulted in the size of the national herd falling further.

In desperate search for water, many Zimbabweans were forced to collect the precious liquid from unprotected sources leading to hundreds of people dying of cholera between 1992 and 1993.

According to the CPU: “National food security was threatened as the drought resulted in virtually no harvest throughout the country. The domestic maize intake by GMB (Grain Marketing Board) during the year was 13 000 tonnes which was just enough for two days consumption!

“The droughts of the 1990s and 1991/2 in particular reduced the national herd by up to 50%, while the drought recovery programme, including the importation and distribution of grain, cost over Z$200 million (US$40 million).”
The drought also resulted in load-shedding, which was virtually unheard of then.

“In terms of energy, close to 80% of the country’s energy comes from the Lake Kariba and as such the energy sector is particularly vulnerable to water shortages and reduced flows. In the most well-documented drought (1991/92 season) the lake level dropped to 40% of capacity; any further drop would have made generating electricity impossible.

The result was frequent power cuts during 1992. To maintain the (economic) programme, the government was forced to import power at great expense from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and South Africa.”

Fast forward to 2015, and Zimbabweans must now brace themselves for yet another calamitous drought whose effects could be equal to, if not worse, than the 1991/92 drought, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

“A potentially record-breaking El Niño brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean will soon hit Southern Africa with Zimbabwe included … The climate system’s abundant rainfall may bring much-needed relief to some farmers, but shortages will inevitably result in a devastating drought,” said Unicef recently.

The drought is set to affect the entire southern African region, but for Zimbabwe the effects could resemble that of a knock-out punch given the severe economic problems that have been dogging the country for over a decade-and-a-half.

While the country’s economy was characterised by strong economic linkages during the 1991/92 drought, this time around the economy is virtually on its knees, weighed down by an unsustainably high external debt, a severe liquidity crunch which has led to company closures and job loses as major investors continue to shun Zimbabwe owing to the country risk and adverse policies. Independent economists estimate that the country’s unemployment rate stands at 90%.

In addition, 16% of Zimbabweans are living in extreme poverty while the overall poverty rate stands at 63% according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. The UN estimates that about 1,3 million people face starvation this year.

As if that was not enough, the country is experiencing serious power shortages that have plunged consumers into 18 hours of darkness daily in some cases, thus compounding the woes of struggling companies.
The economic problems seem to have had a deleterious effect on government’s response to the impending drought, unlike other countries in the region.

Botswana, for instance, recently announced a budget in excess of P1 billion for emergency projects to address its water problems, while also attempting to mitigate the effects of the anticipated drought. South Africa, facing its worst drought since 1982, has designated Free State and North West provinces drought disaster areas for agriculture, with KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo provinces set to be added. Government is pumping millions in financial and other resources to ensure that people in the two provinces do not starve.

In stark contrast, the Zimbabwe government beside merely warning farmers and the citizenry of the impending drought has not announced any major plans to mitigate the drought. Instead, government officials are expending their energy on factional fights ahead of the Zanu PF conference in December.

Social commentator Stanley Tinarwo said government was not taking drought seriously as it should despite its potentially catastrophic effects.

“In fact the major problem has been that government appears to have a singular short term template to respond to our increasingly cyclical droughts,” said Tinarwo. “This generally involves a broad and vague statement from the responsible minister, a mention of it in a presidential address, claims of importation of maize from a neighbouring country and then general chaos about its distribution,” he said.

He predicted that the donor community and non-governmental organisations would play a critical role in feeding the nation due to government’s failure to adequately prepare, while private players such as millers and middlemen would enjoy lucrative business selling maize and mealie-meal.

In January a parliamentary portfolio committee on the environment suggested government urgently designs and implements a national disaster risk reduction strategy, and joins global movements like Globe International.

Globe international is a union of over 80 countries that aims to pass laws supporting sustainable development climate change among other issues. But government is dragging its feet; the move is yet to be approved.

The Civil Protection Unit, which deals with disasters including droughts, is poorly funded. In the 2015 national budget CPU only received US$300 000 against a budget of US$3,5 million.

The unit relies more on funds from the United Nations Development Programme which has been chipping in with US$400 000 yearly.

As if to confirm the disturbing state of unpreparedness CPU deputy director Sibusisiwe Ndlovu told the Zimbabwe Independent that her organisation was working on a specific contingency plan for the entire El Nino impact which would be presented to cabinet.

Ndlovu said: “We are developing different scenarios of what can possibly go wrong for instance looking at food security, the biological hazards, among many issues. So we have developed a draft of the different scenarios which we will give to a cabinet committee for consideration. I cannot get into details of how much is needed as that information can be disclosed after cabinet approval.

So while while the CPU is still engaged in scenario planning after which it will seek cabinet approval, some countries in the region are already putting their plans into action, showing the gulf in responses.

Eddie Cross, who has vast experience in agriculture among other fields, fears for the worst. In an article titled “The implications of another regional crop failure”, he wrote: “…The country is broke, we do not have any financial reserves to speak of and access to no international credit lines large enough to help us meet any emergency in food supplies.

“The last time we faced a basic food shortage of this (expected) magnitude was 2008 when the collapse of the agricultural industry, like the whole economy, was at an all-time low driven onto the rocks by massive inflation. There was no money to import our basic needs and our shops were completely empty.

“This year, we are on our own, aid agencies do not have the budget to help, our government does not have the capacity to step into the breach and the private sector is as broke as everyone else.”

This is enough to send chills up the spines of long-suffering Zimbabweans, who are well known for their “resilience”.

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