Drought: SADC needs new ways

THE Southern African Economic Community (SADC) region is facing its worst drought in 35 years. Nearly 40 million of its 277 million inhabitants are said to be affected by the El Nino-induced drought, with at least 35 million of them reported to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Given the severity of the catastrophic crop failure in the 2015/16 cropping season, the region has declared a drought disaster and launched a US$2.4 billion appeal to help the most vulnerable population.

The appeal follows declarations of national drought emergencies in six countries: Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Swaziland. South Africa and Mozambique have declared partial emergencies. In Zimbabwe alone, an estimated five million people could require humanitarian food assistance by March 2017, much of it in rural areas where about 70 percent of the population lives. The country declared a state of disaster as early as February.

All in all, about 14 percent of the SADC population has been affected by this abnormal weather phenomenon. It is in this light that we commend plans by the leaders of Botswana and South Africa, President Ian Khama and Jacob Zuma, respectively, to convene an extraordinary SADC summit to work out strategies to mitigate the effects of the drought on the region.

The summit was mooted by President Zuma during a Botswana-South Africa Bi-Annual Commission meeting with Khama in Pretoria recently.

In proposing the summit, Zuma noted that the current drought would result is reduced crop production with far-reaching consequences of food security and food prices for most of the bloc’s member states, most of whose economies are aid-dependent.

We believe this drought and its extent should be a wake-up call for the regional leadership to re-examine SADC’s priorities. Disasters of this nature respect no artificial, man-made boundaries. They remind us instead that we either suffer or prosper collectively as a region. It is time to plan with that in mind for the future.

Despite the appeal for humanitarian assistance, there is still a huge funding gap. This speaks to a number of significant challenges.

We cannot rule out donor fatigue in this. Second, the global economy has not recovered from the recession which began as far back as 2008. Third, there are just too many disasters around the world, from wars in the Middle East to earthquakes.

What all that boils down to is that nations must plan for the long-term, collectively and as regional blocs. Increasingly, there will be fewer hand-outs. When such aid does come, it often has uncomfortable strings attached to it, such as recognising gay rights.

If the SADC extraordinary summit on drought does materialise, which we hope it will, the leaders must consider feasible, long-term drought mitigatory measures. There is no doubting that climate change has become a reality in our generation.  There is an urgent need to invest in water infrastructure. That should be followed immediately by massive investment in irrigation systems. Countries such as Israel in the Middle East and Libya and Egypt in North Africa have conquered deserts through technology.

Nothing stops relatively wetter countries of Southern Africa from doing a better job of managing drought conditions.

Part of the reason the current drought has had such devastating consequences is that most rural communities still depend on rain-fed agriculture. But nature has become unreliable, as we are running out of virgin soils in individual countries to expand.

But more importantly, each time there is a drought, governments suddenly have resources to import grain. We believe that money should be invested in the rural farmers and new technologies to increase production while reducing more costly food imports.

Hungry populations are susceptible to manipulation by donors who have agendas which are often detrimental to Africa’s development trajectory.

Thus the mooted summit should be taken seriously; be more than a talk shop for the leaders, or a platform to rail against donors.

We ultimately must take full responsibility for the food security of our people and the region, drought or no drought.

November 2016
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