Hunger stalks southern Africa as climate crisis deepens

BUHERA, ZIMBABWE (AFP) – Just under a year ago, Alice Posha fled her home in the middle of the night and then watched as it was swept away by floods.

The torrential rain came from Cyclone Idai, one of the worst storms ever to hit Africa and the fiercest on record to strike Buhera, a district in the usually arid province of Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe.

Today, the scene in Buhera is entirely different. But the misery remains.

The 60-year-old, who was rehoused in October 2019, is going through the motions of weeding a field of maize that has been withered by the worst drought in 35 years. A little rain for her corn would be more than welcome. “Seeing how the maize is wilting, we may have a very bad harvest,” she said.

It is a scene that is being played out across southern Africa, where chronic lack of rain is threatening mass hunger and ruin.

Climate is being pointed out as the big culprit. In the space of 10 months, Buhera and many districts like it have been hammered by extremes that scientists say are consistent with forecasts about climate change.

In March 2019, the arrival of Idai unleashed devastation on eastern Zimbabwe and its neighbours Mozambique and Malawi. Over a thousand people died and the lives of millions of others were badly affected.

“Our chickens and turkeys were swept away,” said Posha’s sister-in-law Josephine Ganye who now depends on food aid. She is among the 45 million people in southern Africa that the United Nations (UN) has said are threatened by famine.

An aerial view of Victoria Falls in Livingstone. PHOTOS: AFP
A volunteer reads a list with the names during a food distribution
A group of people chats after receiving food donations

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) sent out a stark warning last month. “This hunger crisis is on a scale we’ve not seen before and the evidence shows it’s going to get worse,” said WFP Regional Director in southern Africa Lola Castro.

For the past five years, the entire southern tip of the African continent, where average temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global mean, has suffered from a significant lack of rain. Every farmer, big or small, has been affected as well as breeders, hoteliers and teachers.

In Zimbabwe, the drought has added to a long list of crises, from stratospheric inflation to shortages of cash, petrol, medicines, water and electricity.

For many, daily life has become a nightmare. “Almost everybody in my area is food insecure,” said 68-year-old Headman, or Senior Leader, in Buhera Janson Neshava. “We still do the traditional rain ceremonies, but to no avail. Even the wetlands are now dry and streams that used to flow throughout the year are all dry.”

The WFP said that 60 per cent of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are currently food insecure.

According to local official Patience Dhinda this figure hits 80 per cent in Buhera where the grain depot, which should house the state food aid, stands empty.

A year ago, the crops in Buhera had already suffered from drought before being washed away by Idai. This year they risk being burned to a crisp by the relentless sun.

Around 800 kilometres further west, across the border in Zambia, first impressions suggest that the contrast is startling. The grass is tall, the roads muddy and the fields of maize are a vibrant, healthy green.

In the village of Simumbwe, an hour and a half’s drive south on a dusty road from Kalomo in the southwest of the country, the rains arrived in late December. But in the shade of the majestic trees, seated on the red earth, perched in the branches or on oxcarts, hundreds of people wait patiently for food to be distributed by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), World Vision, and the WFP. Last year, the harvest was catastrophic for the second year running with up to 70 per cent of the crops lost to the drought.

“Last year, I harvested 18kg of food. In other words, nothing,” said Loveness Haneumba, mother of five and a “happy” beneficiary of aid in Simumbwe. “It is common that we eat once a day. The children ask me, ‘what are we going to eat?’ I answer, ‘Just wait. Let me look around’.” It is a question of buying time. For several years, the rainy season has been getting later and shorter, upsetting the traditional farming cycle. It used to be from October to May; now it is barely from December to April.

“The food we have here is not enough to cater for everyone,” said World Vision Food Monitor in the yard of the school in Simumbwe Derick Mulilo, “We are focussing on the most vulnerable.” He meant people like Loveness Haneumba and her stunted children. Her six-year-old daughter looked four and her four-year-old had the appearance of a two-year-old toddler.

Lizzy Kayoba, another mother of a large family, also featured on the list of beneficiaries. She had walked five hours during the night, her youngest on her back, to arrive at dawn for the food handout. She left with 25kg of maize and 7.6kg of beans. “It will last me one or two weeks,” she said. The next distribution at the school is a month away.

Teacher Teddy Siafweba said about 15 children in his class were absent that day because of hunger. In the classroom next door, about 30 were missing – nearly half of the roll-call of 70.

And those who came often have an empty stomach. Some nod off in class, said teacher Tryness Kayuni. The 33-year-old watched the handout with a heavy heart. She was not one of the 862 beneficiaries.

A single mother, Kayuni was not considered a priority as she had a job. And yet she had not been paid since September 2019. Since then she had been holding out on one meal a day.

Funding is desperately needed to meet the needs of the 2.3 million people in Zambia who sorely need food. The WFP has received only a third of the USD36 million required.

Single mother Imelda Hicoombolwa, 49, is not worried. For the last three years she has been one of a number of small farmers who gambled on agricultural diversification, opting for nutritious vegetables and using techniques adapted to climate change.

“Food is not a problem. I have it,” she beamed. Before 2017, Hicoombolwa cultivated almost only maize. Today, she harvests cowpeas, which need very little water, as well as peanuts, pumpkins and sunflowers. “I can make ZMW18,000 (EUR1,100 euros, USD1,222) a year. Before, I was making ZMW8,000 a year,” she said.

One big change is that Hicoombolwa no longer rushes to sow from the first rains. The farmers have learnt to wait. In the recent past it was a different story, according to Allan Mulando of WFP.

“Once they see a drop they plant instead of waiting for the moisture to be good enough,” he said. “At the end of the day, they lose everything.” Rain gauges have helped to change that attitude. As part of a joint programme launched in 2015 by the UN agency and the Zambian government, 165 rain gauges were distributed to farmers in the Zambian districts most affected by the drought.

They have enabled the villagers to read the conditions and plant at the most propitious moment.

Mulando said the rule of thumb is not to plant anything below 20 to 25 millimetres of rain and to choose seeds that fit the weather forecast. If a short rainy season is expected, for instance, choose seeds that will germinate quickly.

Farmers are not the only ones to follow the rainfall closely. From the Kariba dam on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Director of the Power Station on the Zambian side Geoffrey Chambisha watched the water level of the lake. He was worried.

In early 2020, the water level was 476.61m above sea level. Its lowest level, set in 1996, was 475.93m. In the absence of sufficient rain, the dam, the main source of electricity in Zambia and Zimbabwe, is expected to operate at only 25 per cent of its capacity in 2020. Inevitably the two countries are enduring long power cuts, up to 20 hours a day, which is having a knock-on effect on the two economies.

The town of Livingstone, where tourists from all over the world flock to admire the Victoria Falls, has been particularly hit.

A video filmed in September 2019 by a visitor purporting to show the Victoria Falls reduced to a trickle made a massive buzz on social media even though it only reflected part of the reality.

The video showed a dry portion of the 1.7-km-long falls and, much to the indignation of angry tourism professionals, ignored the rest of the free-flowing Mosi-oa-Tunya – the local name which translates as ‘The Smoke That Thunders’.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu exacerbated the panic by leaping for Twitter. “These pictures of the Victoria Falls are a stark reminder of what climate change is doing to our environment and our livelihood,” he tweeted.

The damage was done. Thousands of visitors cancelled their trips; tourism plummeted 25 per cent in 2019. Tourists have also become a rarity 1,500km away in western South Africa.

According to Wildlife Ranching South Africa, two-thirds of the wild animals in the Northern Cape have died in the last three years because of the drought. In two years, half of the 4,500 buffaloes, hippopotamuses and kudus at the Thuru Lodge game farm near Groblershoop have disappeared.

The average rainfall here is 250mm a year. “But 250mm, that’s what we have had in five years,” said Manager Burger Schoeman.

Paul Ludick is usually responsible for locating animal tracks for tourists. He now spends his time picking up the carcasses and feeding the animals that are still alive but struggling to survive. “I stink of death,” he said.

The drought represents a financial black hole for the lodge, which spends EUR12,000 per month to feed the animals while cancelling the reservations of tourists on the lookout for “trophies”. The South African government, which has declared a state of natural disaster in the Northern Cape, will release EUR18 million in aid. A drop in the desert. Over a hundred died because of the drought, with another 200 going prematurely to the slaughterhouse. It is becoming a familiar tale.