By Madalitso Mwando
TSHOLOTSHO, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) – Widowed grandmother Thembi Damasani is counting the cost of the devastation to her home in rural Tsholotsho, battered by heavy rains last month.
The 51-year-old stands over the remains of her hut flattened by February’s violent storms, after the year began with record rainfall in this generally dry southwestern region of Zimbabwe.
“This used to be my kitchen,” Damasani said, pointing to piles of gum poles that had previously held up the roof.
Even as she contemplates rebuilding, she frets there could be more extreme weather in store.
“I don’t even know if I should start repairing all the damage because these rains have become sporadic and too much at the same time,” said Damasani, who is tasked with raising her grandchildren.
She is one of many villagers here who have been hit by a trail of destruction caused by out-of-season rains across Zimbabwe’s southwest, where rainfall is normally low.
Local people expect rains in November and December. But this year, they experienced floods in late January and February - traditionally months when they prepare for harvest.
And rural communities may not yet have seen an end to their losses. At the beginning of March, the country’s meteorological service warned that more heavy rains were expected late into the month.
Tsholotsho is just one rural part of the southwestern region of Matebeleland to have experienced damaging floods in December 2011 and then again this year.
These areas more often suffer from drought, but the unusual rains have brought more misery in the form of destroyed crops.
This is making people less food secure at a time when aid agencies, including the U.N. World Food Programme, have already warned that up to 2 million people across the country will require food assistance this year.
LITTLE WARNING, PROTECTION
Villagers are concerned that flash floods could become an annual recurrence, washing away crops, homes, schools and bridges, and claiming scores of lives as they watch helplessly.
“What we have seen so far is mere response to the flooding, which is always late,” said Daniel Moyo, a village head in Tsholotsho. “But we cannot continue losing the little we have. Someone out there must have an idea about the impending rains.”
According to the Civil Protection Unit, a government body tasked with disaster management and response, the recent floods have left thousands of livestock dead, while swollen rivers have swept away bridges and claimed up to a hundred lives.
Damasani and many others across southern Zimbabwe’s semi-arid areas are concerned that little is being done to minimise the loss of life and crops.
“Now we just have to ask ourselves if the rain is going to spare us because there is just too much water even for our crops. We are not expecting any meaningful harvest,” she said.
The past decade has seen a shift in rainfall patterns, with alternating periods of drought and flooding across the country.
According to forecasts issued by the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department last year, the southwest of the country was expected to experience normal to below-normal rainfall between October 2012 and March 2013.
But forecasts have been regularly revised as rainfall patterns have deviated from initial predictions.
Herbert Pikirai, an agriculture extension officer with Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture, said rural people are finding it hard to adjust because “they still stick to what they have been doing for generations”.
“There is a lot of sadness in rural areas where the sudden heavy rains are being attributed to things that have nothing to do with meteorological facts, such as this being a sign of the end times and people being punished for practicing Satanism by angry gods,” he said.
“Yet this (unusual rainfall) is an opportunity to bring new knowledge to these communities,” he added.
Sobona Mtisi of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, who led research on Zimbabwe’s new climate change policy last year, said the flooding that has hit parts of Zimbabwe is not being dealt with adequately, leaving rural populations in particular at the mercy of growing losses.
“The implications of floods on socio-economic development have not registered on the political radar for them to garner serious consideration by policymakers,” Mtisi said.
“The construction of dams, reservoirs and drainage systems can help mitigate the impacts of floods, as these structures regulate the flow of water. Flood-proofing of critical infrastructure is another essential mitigation strategy,” he said.
The climate change policy he worked on has yet to be published or adopted by the government, he added.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s water and finance ministries have stated that, even though the country needs more dams, there is no financing for such big projects.
For now, it seems that villagers like Damasani will continue to face the threat of extreme weather with little support to reduce the risks to their homes and livelihoods.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.