El Niño drought hits Zim hard

This year, through a very uneven season, farmers have tried and tried to get a crop.

IN the last week, Zimbabwe, following Malawi, declared a drought emergency, requesting US$2 billion in support for purchasing food supplies in the face of large predicted deficits. The total cereal harvest is expected to be around one million tonnes, about half the quantity of the previous year, leaving a big gap to meet total demand, meaning that cereal imports will be essential.

We have known that this was going to be an El Niño season for many months. There were early warnings, recommendations to plant drought resistant crops, suggestions to plan for the worst. And, unlike many climate predictions where there are more uncertainties, the impacts are well documented, with close correlations between El Niño events and maize output repeatedly seen. The consequences are now being felt all over the region.

El Niño events are not new. The major droughts of 1982-83, 1991-92, 2009-10, 2015-16, among others were all linked to El Niño. El Niño is a naturally-occurring phenomenon and emerges when surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean increase. This has an impact on global circulation patterns and drought is usually experienced in southern Africa (while just to the north in east Africa El Niño years are unusually wet). Great droughts in the past have been retrospectively linked to similar climate anomalies back in the 19th century, although today’s accelerating climate change makes things worse.

Food insecurity is widespread

This year, through a very uneven season, farmers have tried and tried to get a crop. I don’t know how many Western Union transfers I’ve done to pay for yet another round of seed after the last one failed due to another extended mid-season drought. Cropping results are patchy, depending on luck, timing and local micro-climatic conditions. Those with access to riverbank or vlei gardens or a small irrigation pumpset will fare better. This is a year when the government programme, Pfumvudza (no-till farming in pits), should have come into its own, with moisture conserved even if rainfall was minimal. But this again was not guaranteed, and many dug and dug to no avail.

All this is having a huge impact on food security and the World Food Programme reckons there are currently 2,7 million Zimbabweans in need of food, with many more expected in the coming months. The tobacco crop, essential for the incomes of many smallholder farmers these days, has been hard hit too with quality down and sales volumes depressed.

Like El Niño years before, this is going to be a tough period, as the predictions from Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FewsNet) starkly show. Luckily the previous years saw relatively good harvests and many have stores of food to help tide them over, especially in the resettlement areas, but nevertheless many will be reliant on assistance. Most of this food will come from relatives who have food or funds, but government, private sector and international aid support will be important too.

Poor media reporting

The media reporting on the drought is once again disappointing. This El Niño event is being experienced across the region; it is not just a Zimbabwe story. El Niño is a particular, long-established weather event that may become more severe with climate change, but it isn’t climate change per se, as so often suggested. The tired story that since the land reform programme Zimbabwe has imported food each year as we know is simply not true, despite the claims of too many poorly researched articles. The capacity to cope this year has improved because of land reform and much of the food being redistributed now to communal areas is coming from resettlement farms.

A much more interesting media story would be about how people are managing in spite of the drought; what new networks are being formed to support the needy; and what is the role of social mobilisation across urban and rural divides. But these are not storylines for making cheap political points.

Sadly, the quality of rural reporting (and most Twitter/X commentary) in Zimbabwe (with some notable exceptions) is poor, with limited understanding of changing rural dynamics and little attempt to find out what is really happening. It is eternally frustrating, which is why I am happy some of these Zimbabweland blogs find their way into local newspapers and websites.

Droughts are always political

The media commentaries emphasise once again that droughts are always political. Whether it is the government or international agencies, everyone wants to make a point (and raise money) from a drought. As P Sainath argued long ago in relation to India, “everybody loves a good drought”.

While rainfall deficits and global weather events take their toll, drought impacts are mitigated through economic, social and political relations. There is of course no such thing as a natural disaster, as vulnerabilities always emerge from particular contexts. And in Zimbabwe the context is not conducive — economic collapse, tampering with currencies, political turmoil and more make it especially difficult for people to respond.

The smallholder farmers, who got land during the land reform, are partially insulated from the wider problems, and having land for self-provision even if yields are low, there are vital in generating resilience. The significant investment in small-scale irrigation in these areas is especially important and will be a major factor in improving food supplies this year.

As we’ve documented before, it is the land reform farmers, especially in the A1 areas, who export food and support others, both in communal areas and in towns. The new food economy, particularly in drought periods remains poorly understood, certainly by journalists but also by those in government and the international aid agencies. Let’s hope that, like in previous years, the predicted disaster will not be as bad as feared. 

  • Ian Scoones is co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex and principal investigator of the ERC Advanced Grant project.

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