Develop systems to counter droughts

AS had been widely predicted, most SADC countries have come out of gripping drought experienced during the 2015/2016 season and are poised for bumper harvests this year, with reports that most have enough grain to feed their people.

From Angola to Zimbabwe, most countries in SADC are in the middle of harvesting their crops and indications are that they will surpass their national requirements and might even export, thereby bring in the much-needed foreign currency to their countries.

As we reported in our previous issue, preliminary figures from SADC indicate that South Africa expects a 2017 maize surplus of about 17 million tonnes, Malawi (3,5 million), Zambia (3,9 million), Namibia (144 000 tonnes) while Zimbabwe is expecting more than 2,5 million.

Details emerging from the SADC Joint Extraordinary Meeting of Ministers responsible for Agriculture, Food Security, Fisheries and Aquaculture which was held recently Swaziland show that South Africa registered an 83 percent increase in grain output, Malawi (38 percent), Zambia (32 percent) and Namibia 80 percent.

The 2015-2016 SADC cereal production was 38,3 million tonnes, the lowest since 2011 while the current – for the few countries that have released their figures — is already close to 30 million tonnes, something that indicates strongly that the region is set to surpass last year’s output by a significant margin.

But while we welcome the bumper harvests, we hope those tasked with securing food stocks in the region have learnt lessons from the droughts and that they have come up with measures to ensure that the region will not suffer from food shortages in the future.

The drought that hit the region in 2015/2016 is not the last and more of such severe weather phenomena will occur in future, thanks to climate change.

Neither will adverse weather conditions like floods which hit parts of the region this past season.  And so too will the outbreak of pests, when the region receives good rains as was witnessed with the fall armyworm in the just-ended season.

It’s almost certain that the southern Africa region will continue to have shocks in the future. The major shock will be from the demand and supply side of the region’s main staple – maize. The good rains that brought good cheer to the region can be short-lived.

We agree with agricultural experts who we quoted last week as saying expectations of a bumper harvest in most parts of the entire southern Africa region should be used as a teachable moment and should set the countries to build and manage strategic grain reserves in an efficient and sustainable manner.

Experts all agree that the 2015-2016 famine spell exposed the region’s weak management of strategic grain reserves.

This therefore calls for preparedness on the part of planners in the SADC region.

That the drought is unavoidable, especially in view of the effects of climate change which has spawned global warming and lesser and lesser rains on these shores, is beyond debate.

However, there is a need for countries in SADC, whose economies heavily rely on agriculture, to prepare for such crises in advance.  The year 2015 was a bad year for the region as the prices of commodities, which again most countries heavily rely on, plummeted sending their economies into a tailspin.

The region must therefore invest heavily in irrigation technologies to mitigate the effects of the droughts that, in view of the climate change, are set to be with us for the foreseeable future.

Granted, most countries in the region have invested heavily in dams, but it is sad that the water from the dams has, in most instances, not been fully utilized to counter the effects of droughts.

The SADC region is endowed with arguably the best climate in the world and good soils for crop production. It can therefore not afford to watch, year in and year out, waters from its rivers and dams flow all the way to the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

There is a need for leaders in the region to think outside the box and come up with lasting solutions to the recurrent droughts and we believe massive investment in irrigation is the way to go. Surely, if desert countries like Israel and Egypt are able to produce their own food despite the fact that very little rains fall in those parts of the world, there is no reason why SADC member states cannot development their own irrigation systems, even if it means coping those that have perfected the art of growing crops in the desert using drip irrigation systems.

There is also need for counter measures against pests and the sooner researchers in the region come up with mitigatory strategies the better for SADC.

It is time for governments in the region to take the bull by the horns and confront the droughts head on.

Developing irrigation systems in the region will obviously be a massive boost to agriculture and is a boon for the economies.   

June 2017
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