El Nino: A stitch in time saves nine

Scientists say one of the strongest El Nino events ever recorded is now underway. This is in line with earlier warnings of a 70 percent chance of El Nino this year by the Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, a leading global climate predictions body. From Japan to Mexico, the Phillipines to Ethiopia, the dangerous phenomenon has battered nations, causing massive flooding and droughts that have affected livelihoods, food production, water availability, public health and energy.

In Zimbabwe, meteorologists have forecast a poor rainfall season this summer on account of the El Nino, an irregular weather event that occurs when the surface water of the Pacific Ocean warms up, altering rainfall patterns worldwide.

The rainfall warnings from the local meteorological office were released only a few weeks back, though the knowledge of the possibility of El Nino in 2015 has existed, arguably, for many months within the domestic weather and climate scientific arena.

Now, with the worldwide El Nino hazards there for all to see, would it not have been more prudent for local weather and climate scientists at the Meteorological Services Department, and elsewhere, to share this critical information much earlier, allowing farmers and Government time to prepare, and intervene?

Agriculture is Zimbabwe’s economic mainstay, that is an open secret. But with rapidly changing climates, early warning has become of great significance to minimising damage from extreme climate-linked events. Meteorologists know that. They know, too, that El Nino could see countries like Zimbabwe experience droughts, heatwaves and water shortages while others, particularly those in the tropics, may become very wet.

Heatwaves have roasted many here, already. As climate information delays, how well prepared are those in Government who hold the strings to the national purse to effect swift and effective interventions? Finance Minister, Mr Patrick Chinamasa, understands that optimal agriculture production is determined by several varying factors including weather and climate patterns, which require adequate forward planning and preparation.

“ . . . crop output should critically depend on the weather out-turn for the coming season, as well as farmers’ access to inputs,” he said in the 2015 National Budget. Government is this year targeting to put 1,7 million hectares under the maize staple at a cost of over $1 billion, but this could be money gone down the drain, literally (well, part of it), given the crop’s drought intolerance.

Some 485 000 hectares is to be put under small grains, but experts argue this is the direction that farmers and Government should start looking. Zimbabwe is desperate already to boost maize output per hectare from the current 0,85 tonnes to regional levels. Farmers in Malawi produce between two to 3,5 tonnes of maize per hectare, and those in South Africa produce five to seven tonnes per hectare.

El Nino will make these targets unachievable while simultaneously causing socio-economic distress.

Better Response
Minister Chinamasa is well aware of the pressing need to force rain to fall, if it does not do that naturally. In the 2015 National Budget released in November last year, he proposed $400 000 spending on cloud seeding, a scientific process that stimulates rain to fall. But the Finance Minister needed a little push from the threat of inadequate rain in the 2015/ 16 season to release half of the planned spending on clouding seeding just last month.

This late intervention is far from adequate. In view of Mr Chinamasa’s well-documented Budget limits, however, it demonstrates commitment to making agriculture work, moreso in an environment marred by a deliberate or genuine scarcity of weather and climate information.

For the long-term, authorities have started a $98 million project to mechanise agriculture, which is refurbishing dead irrigation infrastructure across the country, as well as distributing various farming equipment.

Further, extension workers now need equipping with the requisite knowledge and skill that allows them to respond effectively to the changing agriculture dynamics brought on by climate change, and its intensifying El Nino sidekicks. The 2015 National Budget promised $2 million for research and training of extension workers.

It is not clear whether the funds have been released, yet. With the little available financial resources, Zimbabwe could have been much better prepared for this year’s El Nino. Information can be a key weapon to driving governments and communities into action.

Due to the increased risk of below-normal total seasonal rainfall during El Nino years, below normal rainfall activities should be promoted. These include planting of drought tolerant crops and short season varieties, national drought preparedness programming, moisture conserving farming practises and water harvesting techniques and optimal use of water for power generation, irrigation and domestic.

Previous El Nino events in Zimbabwe have produced mixed outcomes. The one that hit between 1982 and 1983 resulted in a severe drought, with widespread ramifications on poverty and hunger. But the most severe El Nino on record, 1997-98, had negligible effects on Zimbabwe.

New studies suggest that climate change will result in frequent, very strong El Nino events in the future, possibly occurring once every decade. El Nino usually strikes once every seven years but the most extreme occurs in 20 years. The El Nino “anomaly tends to persist for several months to a year or more (and) is one of the major sources of climate variability globally as it influences precipitation and temperatures.”

God is faithful.

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