BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) – Zimbabwe’s lack of preparedness for the impact of climate change is coming under increasing scrutiny, as the nation faces another year of drought and the government admits it has done little to mitigate the crisis.
Smallholder farmers, the main producers of maize, the country’s staple food, are suffering poor harvests because of sparse rainfall and rising temperatures. With the threat of food insecurity being felt across the country, the government is under pressure to formulate a comprehensive climate change policy.
The agriculture ministry said last year that sufficient crops had been planted to feed the nation. But rain expected in late December came only in March, forcing a revision of the projected output.
“No one knows anymore when the rains will fall. We are only seeing the rain now after having planted last year,” said Thembiso Mkhwebu, a smallholder in rural Gwanda, some 100 km (63 miles) south of Bulawayo.
“Our maize wilted a long time ago and this rain is useless now,” she added. “We cannot start planting now.”
REQUEST FOR FOOD AID
Despite previously insisting that Zimbabwe was able to feed itself, the government last month appealed to international humanitarian agencies for help. The US government’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that up to 2 million people will require food assistance.
The international community has yet to respond to Zimbabwe’s appeal, which comes after scores of non-governmental organisations were banned from operating in the country because government officials claimed they were meddling in politics.
At the commemoration of World Water Day in March, President Robert Mugabe noted the huge impact of climate change on agricultural production and said that the scarcity of rain posed a threat to the country’s food security. Zimbabwe’s agriculture is heavily rain-fed, and irrigation schemes are too expensive for most rural smallholder farmers.
Mugabe’s acknowledgement presents fresh challenges to the government’s agrarian reform programme. The country’s inadequate grasp of how to deal with changing weather patterns is typified by the Meteorological Services Department, which over the last year has had to revise its forecast for the coming of the planting season rains a number of times when prior predictions failed.
The government last year began broad consultations to map out a climate change policy in partnership with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), an international non-governmental agency that supports climate-smart development and policy making.
CDKN-supported research suggests that Zimbabwe will have to cope with changing rainfall patterns, temperature increases and more extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. According to CDKN, longer and more frequent droughts could substantially reduce crop yields, including maize.
LACK OF POLICY
The Zimbabwe Regional Environment Organisation (ZERO), a local NGO, says that for a long time there have been no comprehensive programmes to address the crisis presented by changing rainfall patterns.
“What we have seen is little attention to climate change by (the) government,” said Tyson Machingura, a climate change researcher with ZERO. “For example, smallholder farmers are still clueless about when to plant and when not to plant as they continue following traditional seasons, yet so much has changed in climate patterns.”
Machingura called for a ministerial taskforce to plan proper adaptation measures that would benefit ordinary people.
Government officials admit they need to do more to ease the frustration of smallholders like Mkhwebu who at present lack reliable information about when to plant their crops.
“Government is working on climate change programmes designed to address concerns of rain-fed agriculture where poor harvests could mean the whole nation starves,” said Abiatha Ndlovu, an extension officer with the agriculture ministry.
“But we still (have) a lot of convincing to do as many smallholder farmers ignore advice to shift their planting seasons,” Ndlovu added.
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.