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Special Drought Report

Millions of Zimbabweans Seeking Food Aid As Severe Drought Worsens

FILE: 13-year-old Prince Mpofu packs last year's harvest from the irrigated gardens for storage in Nsezi village, Matabeleland, southwestern Zimbabwe. / AFP / Ziniyange Auntony

The drought situation is worsening in Zimbabwe where at least 7,7 million people need urgent food aid as some parts of the southern African nation have so far received insignificant rains for large-scale and subsistence farming.

The World Food Program (WFP) says the climate change-induced dry spell is affecting people in urban and rural areas with indications that more people are set to seek drought relief aid this year.

More than 34,000 cattle have succumbed to the drought, which has resulted in poor harvests in four of the last five crop seasons.

More than 34,000 cattle have succumbed to drought in Matabeleland North, Masvingo and Matabeleland South regions.(VOA: Ezra Sibanda)
More than 34,000 cattle have succumbed to drought in Matabeleland North, Masvingo and Matabeleland South regions.(VOA: Ezra Sibanda)

The Zimbabwean government, according to Agriculture Minister,Perrence Shiri, is left with 100,000 tonnes of maize in its strategic grain reserves. The country consumes about 80,000 tonnes of maize per month. WFP deputy country director Neils Balzer says Zimbabwe is facing one of the worst food crises in years.

“As the World Food Program we are very worried about the situation on the ground. There is a number of compounding factors that have been coming together over the past, I would even say years. First of all out of the last five years Zimbabwe has seen four droughts, so, that’s being climate change-induced changes, less rain, erratic rain, late start of the season, etc, that has affected four out of five previous harvests. The most recent one 2018/2019 harvest was also affected and the country has only produced half of the cereals that it needs to sustain itself.”

Balzer says some Zimbabweans can hardly have a decent meal a day due to the severe drought and current harsh economic situation in Zimbabwe.

“… An assessment that was done in 2019 has revealed that about 7.7 million or just under eight million people are in need of food assistance during the peak of the lean season. The peak of the lean season is what we call from January to March/April just before the next harvest comes in, that’s when hunger is at its peak and most people have run out of their own food stocks. So, these compounding factors have driven up the numbers.

One of the villagers in Matabeleland South facing the current severe drought (Photo: Albert Ncube)
One of the villagers in Matabeleland South facing the current severe drought (Photo: Albert Ncube)

“From a WFP perspective we are looking at providing assistance to just over four million people. We arrived at that number by providing an analysis, additional analysis of the joint government and development partners analysis …”

Matabeleland regional Agricultural Extension Services officer, Dumisani Nyoni, says climate change is causing ravaging droughts in Zimbabwe and other nations.

“ What we are observing is that we have increased variations in the amount of rainfall that we get from year to year. There is an increase in the frequency of mid-season dry spells either in the month of January or February. So, (there is a) short season and then rains start in November, December but tail off in February when we are yet to mature our crops.

“We are also facing an increase of incidents of false start to the seasons, that we get some rains in November or December and then there is an abrupt stop which affects the growing of crops in the fields. So, this phenomenon is going to be with us for a long time. I’ts real, it’s with us for many years to come and we need to change our midset and the way we do business.”

Sibonisiwe Maphosa of Insiza communal lands lost many cattle due to lack of grazing land and water. (VOA: Ezra Tshisa Sibanda)
Sibonisiwe Maphosa of Insiza communal lands lost many cattle due to lack of grazing land and water. (VOA: Ezra Tshisa Sibanda)

Disaster management expert Everson Ndlovu of Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology, concurs, noting that climate change is affecting millions of farmers in Zimbabwe and other nations.

“The impact of climate change mainly is the shortage of water to do cropping. Remember we have been having droughts for the past three or so seasons and already the crop is at wilting stage in many areas. People have a meal a day, you can’t afford three because one meal is very expensive and is not easily available, that’s quite major. For the majority of the people in the south western part of the country they are dependent on remittances from their children, friends and relatives in South Africa. For the ones that are here (city), they are waiting anxiously for the World Food Program to kick start, people are starving, that’s a given fact. So, food shortage is our major challenge in the country.”

FILE: Residents take advantage of a maize distribution program in Zimbabwe. (Credit: World Food Program)
FILE: Residents take advantage of a maize distribution program in Zimbabwe. (Credit: World Food Program)

The WFP says deepening hardships are forcing families to eat less, skip meals, take children out of school, sell off livestock and fall into a vicious cycle of debt. It says there is little respite expected for the most vulnerable, including subsistence farmers who grow most of Zimbabwe’s food and depend on a single, increasingly erratic rainy season.

Sarah Mangena, an 89 year-old living in rural Matabeleland who witnessed one of the most severe droughts in 1947, says the current dry spell has also reached alarming proportions.

“(In 1947) People were picking and eating wild water melons in the bush and eating them as there was no food. Our parents used to cook that for us due to mealie-meal shortages. Those people who could afford (to purchase food) used to buy a five kilogram bag of yellow mealie-meal for 10 cents. There was a lot of hunger, people were eating sweetened cattle fodder. Our parents used to collect it from white commercial farms and we would eat it at home.

“Hunger this year is almost the same as in 1947. The only difference is that there are some people who are currently getting food from donor agencies and the government. We drink water the whole day and only eat in the evening. We eat once like dogs.”

About 20 severe droughts have hit Zimbabwe in the last 50 years, says crop and livestock specialist, Joseph Sikosana, former head of the country’s Matopos Research Station. The latest dry spells have affected millions of people in rural and urban areas. Figures released by the Department of Social Welfare indicate that over 25,237 households in Bulawayo and Harare are currently in need of food aid. They need at least 1,261.85 metric tonnes of maize per month. Clifford Matorera, Social Welfare director, says more people in urban areas are facing hunger.

A villager arrives to collect food aid provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a distribution point in Bhayu, Zimbabwe, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
A villager arrives to collect food aid provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a distribution point in Bhayu, Zimbabwe, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

“We have started identifying people in every community. We have started with Harare and Bulawayo and in our budget of 2020 we are trying to scale up, that is to look into other urban areas so that at least we identify the more vulnerable people in the urban communities so that they are also catered under the program.”

The government, which is facing financial constraints says it is helping some vulnerable communities in urban and rural areas. Acting Social Welfare Minister Sekai Nzenza, says state food aid is also being distributed to some vulnerable households in urban areas.

“In Epworth where they started registering the vulnerable households as of two months ago, there was a lot of (food) distribution happening there.”

WFP’s Balzer says millions of people in urban areas are food insecure due to the deteriorating economic situation in Zimbabwe.

“I think one important aspect which we should not underestimate is that over the past years and it’s a comparatively new phenomenon that we find food insecurity increasing in urban areas as well. Traditionally, it’s more of an issue in rural areas but out of the 7.7 million people … about 2.2 (million) are located in urban areas and not Harare but many peri-urban areas in Zimbabwe.”

He says there are many challenges in securing food for its targeted four million vulnerable people as the drought has also affected some African countries.

FILE: An agriculture extension worker in Zambia inspects maize fields. Zambia, South Africa and other neighboring nations are facing dry spells.(Courtesy - Derrick Sinjela in Zambia)
FILE: An agriculture extension worker in Zambia inspects maize fields. Zambia, South Africa and other neighboring nations are facing dry spells.(Courtesy - Derrick Sinjela in Zambia)

Balzer stresses that they need urgent financial assistance.

“We came out with an appeal from a WFP perspective to reach those four, just over four million people. For that to happen we need $200 million United States dollars for the next six months and we need that funding urgently.

“The reason for this is also that in the past we would procure commodities, we would buy commodities in the region but knowing that the drought has not only affected Zimbabwe but South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, essentially the entire region, so, the stocks are comparably low in the region that means we have to go out further afar to places – Mexico and other places where we need to source these commodities, now, that obviously comes with quite a bit of a lead time so it takes us up to three months from funding confirmed to actually putting food on the table of those who need it most.”

The severe drought has also killed livestock, including cattle and donkeys in some regions. Figures released by the Department of Agricultural Extension Services indicate that the worst hit regions are Matabeleland North, Msvingo and Matabeleland South.

Many cows are succumbing to the dry spell in Matabeleland and Masvingo provinces. (VOA: Ezra Sibanda)
Many cows are succumbing to the dry spell in Matabeleland and Masvingo provinces. (VOA: Ezra Sibanda)

About 13,000 cattle have so far succumbed to drought in Masvingo, 16,000 in Matabeleland South and almost 7,000 in Matabeleland North. Nyoni says farmers are devastated by such loses.

“We lost close to 7,000 herd of cattle mostly in the districts of Binga, Nkayi, to a lesser extent Bubi, Umguza, Tsholotsho and Lupane. Basically this was due to shortages of water and limited grazing availability due to the drought situation that we faced this past season. It also took longer than we expected in terms of getting effective rains to start this current season. So, there was a bit of overlap in terms of livestock loses going into the beginning of the year.”

Nyoni noted that the situation is improving in some areas. “…We have been receiving some rains and the situation has significantly improved especially in the area of availability of surface water for livestock watering and to some extent a bit of grass. The livestock situation is improving, especially among the young stock. In fact, the older cows and those in lactation are the ones that are still lagging behind in terms of (health) condition.”

With so many people seriously affected by perennial droughts, some experts have suggested some drought-mitigating factors like the building of dams to harness water for irrigation purposes while others believe that sound agricultural practices will minimize the crippling effects of dry spells in Zimbabwe, the Southern African Development Community and other nations.

FILE - View of a sorghum crop
FILE - View of a sorghum crop

Ndlovu says there is need to craft a policy to enhance the cultivation of drought-tolerant crops like sorghum, millet, rapoko and legumes in certain regions.

“… (There is need for) Heavy investment in irrigation. That’s the only way out. That’s one. Development of water sources, and again we need to emphasize the planting of drought resistant crops, our small grains, the very grains that our forefathers used. I think our forefathers were well-informed and I think we should go back and retrace and grow those crops that are suitable for our environment and even the recent rains that we just received people should not give up. People should plant even the early maturing crops … I encourage farmers to plant early maturing crops including beans.

He says farmers, who fail to plant such crops, if the government passes a law designating that some areas are set aside for drought-tolerant crops, should face the wrath of the law.

“I think we need to work on a policy, a policy that would say per particular district, areas that are known to be drought prone, it is a must to plant such crops. If you don’t then you get arrested. May be that way will add some kind of the awareness that people are talking about.

“We need to continue to drive the awareness message to please our farmers, to promote this, even on the part of the government you know many of these programs have been promoted by the NGOs and civil society, I think the government must come in and promote these small grains. I don’t want to call them the small grains, that’s our food anyway. It was our food long back.”

Drought has resulted in dozens of cattle dying in Southern Zimbabwe
Drought has resulted in dozens of cattle dying in Southern Zimbabwe

Nyoni says there is need to come up with a solution that tackle climate change, including the growing of drought-tolerant plants and good livestock management.

“What then is required is that as farmers, as communities and as citizens we take note of that because it (climate change) affects availability of water, it affects our ability to produce food and sustain ourselves at household level, it affects livestock production, it affects wildlife and tourism in the country in the sense that once you have animals dying no tourists will visit areas of interest.

“So, we need to take note and begin to take strategies that are climate smart in terms of our agricultural production, in terms of our support to the livestock industry and also in terms of developing water resources as a nation so that we support irrigation development and also to make sure that we also have adequate water supplies to the urban population.”

Balzer agrees, adding that there is need to also invest in vulnerable communities so that they can be self-sufficient.

A woman prepare sorghum for food at her home in drought-hit Masvingo, Zimbabwe; REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
A woman prepare sorghum for food at her home in drought-hit Masvingo, Zimbabwe; REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

“…This is not going away with the next harvest whether good or bad but this is something that we are in for the long run thoughout 2020, I believe and hence it’s also important that we continue to invest not just in the humanitarian assistance which is urgently needed right now, focus needs to be on that, but to continue our investments at commensurate scale in rural areas, in urban areas in building the resilience of those communities that are most vulnerable and that means that we need to ensure that people have the capacity, communities have the capacity to absorb future shocks maybe of climatic nature or other natures.

“For example, WFP over the years we have invested in various locations all over the country … We work with communities, we build small dams, we look at water share management, we link those dams with nutritious gardens, the gardens are feeding the people of that community but also the surplus is sold to nearby markets, part of the produce is given to schools complementing the government supplementary programs. So these investments are fundamental.”

Millions of people may join those already getting free food handouts as Zimbabwe grapples with a severe drought, depreciating economy and climate change.

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Cheap as Bread, Girls Sell Sex to Survive Crisis in Africa

FILE: A Zimbabwean subsistence farmer holds a stunted maize cob in his field outside Harare. (REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo)

Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Young girls in southern Africa are selling sex - sometimes for less than the cost of bread - to survive a hunger crisis ensnaring tens of millions, aid agencies said on Thursday.

In Angola, girls of 12 sell themselves for as little as 40 cents to feed their families as the south of the country faces its worst drought in four decades, World Vision said.

The United Nations says a record 45 million people in southern Africa face hunger amid a “silent catastrophe” caused by repeated drought, widespread flooding and economic chaos.

World Vision said staff had seen a significant increase in girls resorting to transactional sex in Angola and Zimbabwe amid “huge levels of desperation”.

Robert Bulten, World Vision’s emergencies director in Angola, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation a girl might get 500 kwanzas ($1) for sex - enough to buy about a kilo of beans or two kilos of maize - but could get as little as 200 kwanzas.

“We definitely know there’s an increase. It’s difficult to quantify because it’s taboo ... but I would say a significant number (are doing this),” he said.

“We’re talking about girls between 12 and 17.”

Bulten said the price of some staples had doubled since last year. With the next harvest not due until June, he predicted hunger would worsen.

In Zimbabwe, CARE International said there were reports of girls as young as 14 resorting to selling sex, especially en route to South Africa and near goldmines.

“Sometimes they earn as little as 5 RGT ($0.31) for one sexual encounter, which is really awful ... it’s not even enough to buy a loaf,” said CARE’s regional gender expert Everjoy Mahuku.

ActionAid regional advisor Chikondi Chabvuta said women and girls “on the edge of survival” were forced into transactional sex in Mozambique and Malawi.

Swathes of southern Africa have experienced their lowest rainfall since 1981, according to the United Nations, which says the crisis is fuelled by climate change as temperatures in the region rise at about twice the global rate.

Other countries affected include Zambia, Madagascar, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Aid workers said many of the girls would normally be in school. In some cases, they had dropped out because of deepening family poverty, but many schools had also closed.

World Vision’s Bulten said the crisis in southern Angola had also increased the incidence of rape and child marriage.

Girls were at heightened risk of rape while walking long distances for water or foraging in forests, he said.

Families struggling to make ends meet may marry girls off early so they have one less mouth to feed, but Bulten said sometimes it was to keep them out of the prostitution.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the crisis had driven up child marriage in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho and Namibia.

Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.

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