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Plight of degraded soils during climate change

Opinion & Analysis
Promoting climate-smart agricultural practices is one way to address soil degradation.

AS the cruel hand of climate change continues to strike upon rural Zimbabwe, soil health is in utter despair, bringing a grave menace to the livelihoods and sustenance of smallholder farmers.

These hardworking agriculturists, whose very survival depends on the fruits of their labour, are facing an arduous challenge as there have been frequent weather anomalies — droughts and floods which have caused significant damage to the soil structure and a sharp decline in crop yields.

Droughts led to crop failure, loss of pasture for livestock, and water scarcity, forcing farmers to rely on expensive or unreliable water sources. This is exacerbating the already dire situation of soil depletion caused by deforestation, overgrazing, and unsustainable farming practices and has been further worsened by climate change. The result is that farmers cannot produce enough crops to sell or feed their families, leading to food insecurity and poverty, which perpetuates the cycle of poor soil health.

The degradation of soil quality is also reducing the nutritional value of crops, further compromising food security and the health of local communities.

Ultimately, the negative impacts of climate change on rural Zimbabwe’s soil health are undermining the ability of small-scale farmers to sustain their livelihoods, perpetuating the cycle of poverty, and giving rise to a range of other social, economic, and environmental problems.

Muzarabani district has experienced frequent droughts, causing crop failure and soil degradation, depleting the fertility of soil needed to grow crops. Farmers struggle to access water in this area, and the available water is often of poor quality, contributing to further soil degradation.

In Masvingo province, farmers have been experiencing unpredictable rainfall patterns coupled with prolonged dry spells.

This has led to soil dryness and cracking, making it difficult for crops to grow and contributing to soil degradation.

Furthermore, the region has experienced prolonged dry spells that have drained underground water tables, resulting in the drying up of boreholes and other surface water sources, exacerbating the situation.

The impacts of climate change on soil health are leading to widespread food insecurity and poverty in rural areas, making it increasingly difficult for smallholder farmers to sustain their livelihoods. This has led to calls for greater investment in sustainable agricultural practices, water conservation, and support for farmers to adapt to the changing climate.

When livelihoods are affected by poor soil health resulting from climate change, the impacts are widespread and can be devastating. The livelihoods of many smallholder farmers in rural Zimbabwe are intrinsically linked to the productivity and fertility of the soil.

These impacts result in food insecurity as low crop yields and poor soil quality can leave families struggling to grow enough food to meet their basic needs. Lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition and stunted physical and cognitive development in children.

Moreover, when farmers struggle to make a living from agriculture, they may turn to other more unsustainable livelihoods such as illegal logging, poaching or charcoal production, degrading the soil and surrounding environment. This further contributes to the poverty trap and entrenches the cycle of soil degradation, which worsens the impacts of climate change.

In the long run, the loss of fertile topsoil results in low agricultural output, thereby adversely affecting farmers’ income streams and the socio-economic development of the communities, perpetuating poverty in the rural areas.

This can ultimately result in migration from rural areas and forced urbanisation or further food insecurity, thereby magnifying the impact of climate change on individuals and communities.

Promoting climate-smart agricultural practices is one way to address soil degradation.

Climate-smart agricultural practices involve three main pillars: increasing agricultural productivity and incomes, building resilience to climate change, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some examples of climate-smart agricultural practices include conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and integrated crop-livestock production.

Farmers can use these practices to conserve soil moisture, reduce soil erosion and protect soil and water resources in the long term.

In Mwenezi, the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are promoting conservation agricultural methods, which include no-till farming, crop rotation, and intercropping.

These practices have reportedly led to increased yields and improved soil health, strengthening the rural economy and reducing food insecurity.

Organic farming methods as a solution involve using natural inputs such as manure and compost to improve soil health and fertility.

Organic farming practices can help to reduce soil erosion and degradation, reliance on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and improve the nutritional quality of crops. Case in point in Chikombedzi, where the Zero Regional Environment Organisation promotes organic farming methods to help improve soil health and prevent forest degradation.

Farmers also need access to reliable water sources to irrigate their crops during prolonged drought periods.

Government, NGOs, and private sector actors can promote irrigation by constructing boreholes, dams, or reservoirs and promoting affordable and efficient irrigation technologies, such as drip irrigation.

The Zimbabwean government can be commended for promoting irrigation in drought-prone areas, such as the Matabeleland provinces.

Small-scale irrigation schemes that use groundwater and rainwater harvesting have been established, improving farmers’ resilience to climate change.

However, these efforts are insufficient, considering the indiscriminate nature of the crisis.

Deforestation causes soil erosion, land degradation and other adverse environmental impacts. Afforestation and reforestation efforts help to conserve soil by stabilising and conserving soil moisture.

Some initiatives, such as the Zimbabwe Lowveld Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development Project, seek to promote reforestation alongside climate-smart agricultural practices.

The project involves planting indigenous tree species in deforested areas, promoting sustainable land use practices and community involvement.

Coupled with providing financial and technical support to smallholder farmers, this would go a long way in allowing farmers to optimise agricultural production while adapting to the impacts of climate change.

They could receive training and access credit to adopt sustainable practices that conserve soil and water resources and withstand the effects of climate variability.

For example, the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Programme, implemented by FAO, provides training in climate-smart agriculture to farmers in the most vulnerable areas, including training on drought-resistant crop varieties, soil conservation techniques, and water management.

Overall, the above measures can assist in improving the situation of poor soil health resulting from climate change in rural Zimbabwe in the short and long term.

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