Desperate times in Zimbabwe as El Niño food shortage ravages the nation

As the El Niño-induced drought continues across parts of Africa, equal attention must be given to all countries and precise actions must be put in place before the situation spirals out of control, says Plan International’s Humanitarian Director Roger Yates

The El Niño-induced drought is ravaging parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. It is destroying lives, livelihoods, crops, cattle and landscape – as well as child’s right to an education.

While Ethiopia continues to dominate the headlines, with reports stating it is the worst drought to hit the country in 30 years, it is important not to forget that other countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique are reeling under a severe drought caused by El Niño which has triggered a food shortage.

As part of Plan International’s response team, I recently travelled to Zimbabwe to assess the situation – a country which only a few years ago suffered widespread food shortage. The reality is hard-hitting, heart-breaking and far worse than I’d imagined. It’s clear this disaster deserves a lot more attention than it is getting.

According to the Government of Zimbabwe the number of people requiring food aid has risen to 2.44 million, which is one quarter of the population. The situation for those affected will only get worse before it gets better.

To put it into context, 36,000 hectares of maize is planted in Bikita District, in the south of Zimbabwe, during a good year. This year, farmers were only able to plant 8,000 hectares of maize. Out of the 8,000, 55 percent won’t produce any yield, while the remaining 45 per cent will be of poor quality – meaning approximately 98 per cent of their crop has been lost. It is a total wipe out. To make matters worse, another crop can’t be harvested until April 2017, leaving villagers little to live off.

For those in Southern Zimbabwe, agriculture is the main source of income and of food, however this slow on-set disaster is destroying the lives of thousands. Villagers told me how hard it is for them. Many don’t know where the next meal will come from, let alone what they will do as the situation further deteriorates over the coming months.

This is why precise actions must be put in place now to save lives and alleviate suffering.

At a registration centre for food assistance, 1,400 families from different villages were asked to organise themselves in terms of who needed food the most. I was looking at a group of 63 families, all of whom classed themselves as food insecure. The reality was hard to take, as we only had food for 21 percent of all the families attending the registration proving there are simply not enough resources at the moment and funds need to be raised and foods need to be procured.

In this situation, food is not enough. Villagers would benefit from cash assistance too – a dignified and empowering form of support. Cash distributions can take place at the same time as food distributions, giving people the opportunity and flexibility to decide what their spending needs are without selling their food, cattle or assets, to make ends meet. This ensures economic security and it can also help support children in terms of nutrition, health and education.

Children at risk
Further action needs to be taken as children are bearing the brunt of the impact with many at risk of forgoing their education to help families make ends meet.

Beauty, 13, from Masvingo province, Zimbabwe, has been hard hit by El Niño. The teenager wakes up every day at 4am, fetches water and pounds dried corn with a stick before setting off on the 18 kilometre round-trip walk to school in the hot sun. For Beauty, days are long and hard.

“The distance to school makes me lose hope,” Beauty told me. “I sometimes feel my bones aching. Sometimes, I cannot wake up to go to school, my body fails me. The situation is becoming worse as my grandmother can’t afford my school fees – the money we do get is going on food.”

To stop children dropping out, schools should be made fee-free. If schools need to apply levies to develop, why not waive those in difficult years? Uniforms are an added expense, so don’t insist on it – it’s better for children to get an education, whether they have money or not.

Importing food
Food is becoming increasingly hard to source. In the past, food was imported from South Africa during difficult times, but South Africa is facing a food shortage too.

As Zimbabwe doesn’t accept genetically modified maize this means the country is having to import food from countries as far as Ukraine and Mexico and if the situation continues, 1.5m tonnes of staple maize will be required to feed people until December.

Traditionally small grains such as millets and sorghum – suitable for the local arid landscape – were the staple crops. They were replaced with maize over several decades due to the latter’s higher yield and the fact maize requires lower investment and is relatively easier to cultivate. Now, maize has become a staple crop across Zimbabwe and many other countries in the region.

However, arguments supporting a return to growing small grains in dry areas and distributing them as food aid are gaining strength. It is critical that policies on matters like these, that have such a profound impact on people’s lives, are fully informed and are aligned across the board covering business as usual and humanitarian situations alike.

As the food shortage continues to worsen in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa, humanitarian assistance is becoming even more urgent. Any form of humanitarian action needs to come in early and timely, on the basis of warnings and vulnerability analysis. In this case, donors need to contribute more money to allow a stronger pipeline of food, and the government needs to allow milled nutritional products into the country, even if they contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Looking forward
Throughout my trip, people gave me clarity on certain hard realities. There has been no harvest and they are desperate. Food prices are rising. Water sources are drying and children are at risk of dropping out of school to help families make ends meet.

The situation in Zimbabwe is a desperate one and actions, such as the ones recommended, need to be put in place now. Organisations such as Plan International are doing what they can such as distributing food. We’ve also encouraged farmers to plant millet and sorghum as they are drought-resistant and the crop bears fruit much faster.

A couple of years ago, Plan International supported villagers who had resettled themselves near to a  canal which takes water down from a huge sugar cane plantation – so pockets of communities are still able to grow maize, providing food and an income for families. Going forward, this proves why an investment in irrigation schemes for small farmers where feasible is imperative – especially when it’s possible to use river, dams and canal water rather than boreholes

These projects aside, this drought is much worse than I expected and there is simply not enough food to go around. Villagers are selling assets and borrowing money from others – including Plan International-supported village savings group. Everyone is just making do with the little they have.

It’s clear that this disaster isn’t about to disappear and there’s no quick fix. It requires attention, clear cut actions and support as well as funding before it’s too late.

Roger Yates has worked in international development and emergencies for nearly 30 years. He has been the Director for Disaster Risk Management at Plan International since 2008. Roger was a part of the UN Humanitarian Coordinators Pool between 2006 and 2008; a founder member of the  NGO Military Contact Group in UK; is a member of the UN Inter-agency Task Force on Disaster Reduction and spent 7 years on the BBC Appeals Advisory Committee. He worked for 10 years at Oxfam, working mostly in Africa; 10 years at ActionAid as head of emergencies and conflict, and on other contracts with UN and UK government. He lived in Africa for 16 years, and has also worked in Asia and the Americas. Mr Yates qualified as an engineer, and was a member of the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management. He has a Masters in Water and Environmental Management from Loughborough University.