Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region recorded the lowest rainfall in nearly four decades in the 2018-2019 cropping season, sparking fears of increased food insecurity and water shortages in the region. A SADC Food Security Early Warning System Agromet update for the 2018-2019 cropping season indicates that a strong drought affected central and western parts of the region during the just-ended rainfall season.
“Many parts of southern Angola, northern and southern Botswana, northern Namibia, north-western South Africa, southern and western Zambia and north-western Zimbabwe received their lowest seasonal (October-March) rainfall totals since at least 1981,” the report highlighted.
The low seasonal rainfall totals observed in the region, the report said, were primarily the result of delayed and erratic onset of rains in several areas that resulted in reduced area planted and poor germination.
A mid-season dry spell of varying duration also resulted in moisture stress and wilting of crops, while an early cessation of rains across central areas further exacerbated pre-mature wilting of crops.
Furthermore, in mid-March, Cyclone Idai destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of cropland in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
“Cumulatively, these factors reduced end of season production prospects due to reductions in planted area, reduced yields, and outright crop failure in some areas,” a SADC Agromet report said.
“At a local scale, the poor seasonal performance will have the most severe impacts in cropping areas where widespread crop failure occurred, as well as areas with pre-existing high levels of food insecurity due to poor 2017-2018 seasonal production.”
At a regional level, SADC weather experts say some of the most affected areas are high maize producing areas, which will negatively impact regional maize supplies.
“In many countries, survey teams are currently in the field, generating crop production estimates that will better quantify the availability of food crops at sub-national and national level,” the report said.
The drought also affected water supplies for domestic, industrial and agricultural — irrigation and livestock — usage.
Forage for livestock was also negatively impacted and reductions in pasture availability will be experienced in the worst affected areas as the dry season progresses, the report indicated. The poor grazing and water conditions are negatively affecting livestock and reports show that well over 30 000 drought-related cattle deaths have been recorded in Namibia between October 2018 and April 2019.
Only a few areas in the SADC region received good rainfall for much of the season.
These include northern Malawi, northern Mozambique, parts of Tanzania, and north-eastern Zambia. Three SADC countries had to declare a state of drought disaster due to the low rainfall. Namibia, which has been hit by successive droughts since 2013, has declared a state of emergency over the situation which has left more than 500 000 people without access to enough food and water. The country has lost more than 60 000 domestic animals over the past six months.
South Africa too has declared the current drought affecting some parts of its provinces a disaster. Tropical Cyclone Idai brought heavy rainfall and strong winds to Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe between March 5 and 19, 2019, causing severe flooding which led to loss of lives, destruction of infrastructure, disruption of livelihoods and destruction of crops.
It is estimated that close to 780 000ha of croplands in the three countries were destroyed by the cyclone, with the majority of this area being in Mozambique.
Dams and wells were also damaged, and livestock were washed away. On April 11 this year, SADC launched a US$323 million appeal to support the disaster response and recovery efforts related to Tropical Cyclone Idai impacts.
Zimbabwe is facing a drought and more than half of its national herd of 5,2 million cattle is at risk of being wiped out if no measures are taken to save the livestock from a ravaging drought. Agricultural experts warn that most districts will run out of pastures by August, a development which is likely to lead to the loss of livestock. Experts have urged farmers to sell some of their animals and buy supplementary feed or dig wells for watering them.
United Nations agencies estimate that more than six million Zimbabweans face hunger between now and the next harvest in 2020.
The UN has already launched an appeal for food assistance to the country.
Zimbabwe has 800 000 tonnes in its reserves against a consumption of 1,8 million tonnes. Poor rains across eastern Africa, southern Africa and the Horn of Africa have led to another desperate season for farmers reeling under severe water and food shortages as well as rising food prices.
Millions of people are vulnerable across the three regions and the UN estimates that more than 45 million people will struggle to find enough food across 14 countries in these regions this year. This is for the second time in three years that an El Niño weather phenomenon has caused adverse weather conditions in these three African regions.
In 2017, the UN estimated that more than 38 million people were in need of food assistance after two consecutive years of drought.
Drought again in the 2018 – 2019 cropping season was followed by significantly below-average rains which saw averages falling by 50 percent in parts of southern Africa.
Agricultural experts say Zimbabwe and most other African governments now need to put in place “risk-reduction measures” that promote drought-tolerant crop varieties, irrigation systems and cash transfers to cushion the impact on farmers.
In Zimbabwe and most other countries in SADC, the utilisation of water for irrigation by the agriculture sector is still below capacity and needs to be urgently revitalised.
Through irrigation infrastructure development with the support of international partners, Zimbabwe and most other countries in the region can tackle problems facing smallholder farmers such as low incomes and living standards, poor nutrition, housing and health and education.