Ghost of 2014/15 season drought haunts Southern Africa

Brimming with vibrant cultures, iconic landscapes and an array of fascinating wildlife, Southern Africa’s Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are this year pale shadows of themselves, grappling with the hostile effects of a mid-season dry spell that roasted everything in its path- crops and vegetation alike.

Even the rolling grasslands that usually teem with dazzling herds of wildlife and domestic livestock in other instances are telling a sad story this time around. The grass has already started drying and water reservoirs silently losing the little precious liquid they had trapped to evaporation and overuse.

On the human front, governments of these states have already started mobilising resources towards importing grain.

Zimbabwe’s government has already indicated that it will import 700 000 tonnes of maize, which will attract cash in excess of US$200 million to avert a food crisis. Harare is holding only 150 000 tonnes in reserves against a national requirement of 1,8 million metric tonnes. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates Zimbabwe’s maize production for the 2014/15 season at 950 000 tonnes, which is way below national requirements.

So far, 1 800 tonnes of maize have been imported from neighbouring Zambia but logistical problems have rendered the process slow while border controls have also added to the woes. Zimbabwe produced 800 000 tonnes of maize, 500 000 tonnes of Irish potatoes, 400 000 tonnes of sweet potatoes, 374 000 tonnes of pulses and 36 000 tonnes of cucurbits in the just ended season.

Last year, its maize output was 1,456 million tonnes, 82 percent more than the 798 600 tonnes in the 2012/13 season. It also achieved its highest total cereal production in five years at 1, 7 million tonnes. In its recent maize production report for Southern Africa, FAO said nearly 300 000 hectares in Zimbabwe were a write-off due to the prolonged dry spell and the resultant estimated 35 percent decline in output was the worst in the region. Earlier this year the Zimbabwean government had lifted a ban on imports it had imposed last year.

Agriculture contributes 17 percent to Zimbabwe’s Gross Domestic Product and the decline in maize production is expected to impact on growth forecast at 3, 2 percent for 2015.

In non-drought years more than half of Zimbabwe’s maize requirements are produced by small-scale farmers with up to 40 percent coming from commercial farmers. In times of drought, it is the commercial farmers that chip in with a cushion because a large proportion of their crop is irrigated while very little irrigation occurs in communal areas.

This trend seems to be shifting as most of the commercial farmers are concentrating on commercially high value crops such as tobacco, soya beans, sugar beans and in some cases horticultural varieties. Zimbabwe is turning to South Africa and other neighbours for staple grain imports.

Similarly, the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute (IAPRI) has observed that Zambia is also likely to record a reduction in maize production due to poor rainfall though it has enough cereal and even surplus for export.

In its 2014/15 overview, IAPRI’s Antony Chapoto indicated that Zambia was expecting to record a reduction in maize production in the next marketing season due to rains experienced this year. He cited prolonged dry spells that persisted in some parts of the country especially those that planted late as chief causes of the dire situation.

But despite this situation, he said, Zambia had large stocks of maize, which would translate into exportable surplus in the marketing season. Chapoto, however called for the maintenance of an open border maize policy to make Zambia a reliable maize supplier.

He said Government should consider discounting the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) depot price to increase demand for Zambian maize, which is currently not competitive in the region to minimise losses.

Botswana also came up with a number of measures to counter the effects of the severe drought that include subsidies to farmers, funding emergency water supplies and food relief for the vulnerable.

President Ian Khama has since declared the whole country drought stricken while climate experts have even predicted that Botswana is set to experience more severe droughts in the coming years, possibly crippling the agricultural sector.

Nnyaladzi Batisani, a senior researcher for climate change at the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) hinted that the drought period would be characterised by inter annual variability where there would be good rainfall one year with poor rains the following year.

He said although naturally Botswana had always been prone to droughts, climate change had worsened the situation. Batisani challenged farmers to adopt the Climate Smart Agriculture initiative to mitigate the effects of severe droughts.

“Farmers need to adopt the Smart Climate Agriculture initiative, which will allow them to produce more even with little rains,” said Batisani.

Botswana’s yield forecast for 2014/15 drastically declined with the national estimated production for cereals standing at 7 382 metric tonnes, which is three percent of the national cereal requirement of 300,000 metric tonnes.

Also, the available grazing pastures and water will not sustain livestock until the next rainy season as a result of the poor rainfall received and the dry spell experienced. This situation has prompted the Botswana Meat Commission (BMC) to appeal to the government to consider subsidising farmers in the wake of the drought.

Water levels were observed to be relatively low in catchment areas for the Okavango, Chobe-Zambezi, Ngotwane, and Limpopo rivers, as compared to the year 2013/2014, which has resulted in reduced inflows into dams and recharge into well-fields.

In Namibia, the Government is providing food relief to the affected people but in a clear reversal of what had become a new trend in which young people were migrating from urban areas to rural communities to survive on agriculture, they have started leaving their plots for urban areas in search of alternative sources of income. The country’s worst drought in three decades has rendered the future of cropping and livestock rearing bleak.  

Figures from the Prime Minister’s office show that close to 418,000 people in Namibia have been affected by drought.

Poor harvests are driving more and more young farmers to urban areas to earn a living. The once “well-to-do farmers” are facing a challenging start as most of them lack educational qualifications. Many, who used to farm in the Oshikoto region, have moved to Goreangab slums in the Namibian capital, Windhoek.

July 2015
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