As families in Bikita in Masvingo province battle the scorching heat and the effects of drought caused by El Nino, hunger is stalking the province, with most crops in the southern region now a complete write-off, pointing tough times ahead. The majority of the people in the district are not expecting to harvest anything as drought ravages villages in the rural areas.
The skinny cows and goats grazing in almost barren fields in Tamirepi village, is a further pointer of how severe the drought is.
Dry rivers also bear testimony of the dire situation in the district. Even rivers, which used to have water flowing year-in and year-out, have dried up or have been reduced to mere puddles.
Villagers in Bikita are praying for rain to mitigate the adverse effects of the prolonged dry spell, which has led to most crops suffering from moisture stress and livestock dying. But the dry season and drought has not affected Bikita alone. Other districts in the province such as Chiredzi, Gutu, Chivi and Mwenezi have also been hard-hit with hundreds of thousands villagers in need of food assistance.
Government statistics reveal that Masvingo has already lost 6 566 cattle to the drought. It is the worst affected province so far. Government says 16 681 cattle deaths have been recorded nationwide, but the numbers are expected to increase.
Steven Nyamayaro of Tamirepi gazes hopelessly into the blue sky as he ponders how he was going to survive until the next season. He, like many other farmers in the district, is devastated that his crop which showed a lot of promise has now been written off.
“We last received rains on January 19. However, they were very little considering that we had last received the rains in early December,” said Nyamayaro who stays with his wife, three children and five grandchildren.
“I rely on farming for my family’s food and usually I don’t have to buy maize. Now, I have no food to put on the table so I will have to buy. It is devastating; farming is my means of survival.”
The situation in Masvingo is a microcosm of a wider scenario of drought across the country and the region.
The government and relief agencies estimate that three million people will need food assistance before the next harvest.
The country needs about US$1,5 billion to avert hunger and has appealed to the international community, local business people, civil society, churches and humanitarian organisations to assist with food.
Zimbabwe also needs about 1,8 million tonnes of grain for human and livestock consumption per year but only produced 800 000 tonnes of maize last season due to poor rains and flooding in some areas.
To mitigate the effects of the drought the government and private grain dealers have been importing grain from Zambia, but the situation is looking dire after the neighbouring country last week banned maize exports.
The move by the Zambian authorities has affected local grain importers who are battling to bring in 70 000 tonnes of maize worth US$24 million which they had already paid for.
The government belatedly declared the state of disaster, a move relief agencies say will result in the country receiving reduced assistance from relief agencies. Most relief agencies had already committed resources to countries such as Malawi, which made declarations earlier. Government officials have not even bothered to tour provinces such as Masvingo and Matabeleland South which have been hard hit by the drought.
Meanwhile, First Lady Grace Mugabe has been holding rallies to boost her Generation 40 (G40) faction, at taxpayers’ expense, whereas the resources could be used to feed hungry people. Ironically also, Zanu PF is mobilising US$800 000 to celebrate President Robert Mugabe’s 92nd birthday, in the drought ravaged province. Poor villagers, who are struggling to feed themselves, are being asked to contribute a US$1 each towards the bash, as the province seeks to raise US$100 000 to contribute towards the lavish bash.
As Martha Guta of Maroso village in Bikita testifies, most people are yet to receive assistance from government. She and her family have been surviving on handouts from non-governmental organisations.
“We have now come to rely on Plan (International) which recently gave each family 50kg of maize. They also gave families US$6 per child for the purchase of cooking oil and other food stuffs like beans because they did not bring that with them. But we also appeal to government to assist us with food and clean drinking water as our boreholes are running dry,” said Guta.
Social commentator Stanley Tinarwo said government has been so engulfed in factional fights, that it has put drought on the backburner.
“The key challenge has been the assumption that it is the donors that will provide during the time of drought hence the ruling party regrettably continues its factionalism without a coherent government plan as to how it will deal with the drought,” Tinarwo said.
“This means as opposed to being, as far as is possible, self-reliant and focused on solving this key challenge, there is a reverting back to a begging bowl mentality mired in the tragic politicisation of food aid.”
Another social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said authorities are not serious about the welfare of the poor.
“This is why you see that public funds are channeled towards a useless rumour-mongering rally addressed by a First Lady and the purpose of that rally is not to talk about drought or any policy but trade insults. At this juncture after declaring drought a national emergency, the government should have formed task-forces to mobilise resources and grain to distribute to most affected areas,” he said.
“But no, to our government power struggles are more important. What we need now is a drought relief plan, not useless rallies.”
Senior researcher for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa with the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch Dewa Mavhinga said government is in a state of paralysis due to continued Zanu PF succession infighting which has now reached fever pitch.
Mavhinga said: “Government appears to be on autopilot on national issues including fighting hunger as parochial political interests take centre stage.”