Zimbabwe: bearing the brunt of climate change

Against the backdrop of disagreement on climate change action, which followed the United Nations (UN) COP 25 conference held in Madrid, Spain, in December – for SHEQ MANAGEMENT’S report, see page 30 of this edition – it’s interesting to note that Zimbabwe, once regarded as the breadbasket of Africa, is said to be facing extreme hunger as a result of prolonged drought aggravated by an economic crisis.

That’s the assessment by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which has recently called on countries around the world to step up support for Zimbabwe where, it says, studies have shown that eight million people – about half of the population – are not getting enough to eat.

According to the WFP’s report, the country’s 2018/19 cropping season was marred by one of the worst droughts in recent history and dry spells continue to threaten the upcoming 2020 harvest.

The organisation plans to double the number of Zimbabweans that it assists, up to 4,1-million people, but it says it will require over US$ 200 million (about R3 billion) to meet needs in the first half of 2020 alone.

“As things stand, we will run out of food by end of February, coinciding with the peak of the hunger season – when needs are at their highest,” says Niels Balzer, the WFP’s deputy country director in Zimbabwe. He says firm pledges from donors are urgently needed as it can take up to three months for funding commitments to become food on people’s tables.

According to Balzer, Zimbabwe has been hit hard by three consecutive years of drought. As a result, the maize harvest dropped by 50 percent in 2019 compared with 2018. To meet increasing needs, the WFP was forced to launch an emergency lean-season assistance campaign in August, months earlier than expected, he says.

Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, visited Zimbabwe in November where she said she witnessed how women and children were bearing the brunt of the crisis. “In a desperate effort to find alternative means of livelihood, some have resorted to coping mechanisms that violate their most fundamental human rights and freedoms, As a result, school drop-outs, early marriage, domestic violence, prostitution and sexual exploitation are on the rise throughout Zimbabwe,” she said in a statement following her 11-day mission.

The hunger crisis comes as Zimbabwe faces its worst economic downturn in a decade. Runaway inflation is just one of the symptoms, and it has put the price of basic goods beyond the reach of the average citizen. The WFP reports that bread is now 20 times more expensive than it was six months ago.

Increasing hardship is forcing families to skip meals, take children out of school, or sell off livestock – among other desperate measures implemented by the population to ward off the effects of the drought.

According to a report by Matteo Cosorich, a WFP official, Gladys Chikukwa – who sells tomatoes at the second largest market in the country, Sukubva – is finding it hard to survive. “Just because we are selling tomatoes in this market doesn’t mean that we have enough food for ourselves. We are seriously struggling. Our produce is rotting because of prices. Today, tomatoes will sell for 250 Zimbabwe dollars, tomorrow 300 dollars, the next day 400 dollars – and people don’t have that money,” he quotes her as saying. 

The drought shows no signs of letting up, and forecasts indicate another poor harvest in April, according to the WFP.  The UN agency also faces challenges in scaling-up its operations in Zimbabwe as the shortage of local currency – coupled with rapid inflation – requires switching from cash-based assistance to food distribution.

And, with other southern African countries also gripped by drought, food stocks must be sourced outside the continent and then shipped to neighbouring South Africa or Mozambique before being transported to landlocked Zimbabwe.

The WFP estimates that it will require nearly 200 000 t of food to assist the number of Zimbabweans it plans to target, with Balzer underlining why financial support from the international community is so desperately needed.

“While the WFP now has the staff, partners, trucking and logistics capacity in place for a major surge in Zimbabwe, it is essential that we receive the funding to be able to fully deliver,” he said. “The lives of so many depend on this.”

WYNTER MURDOCH

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