Harare — A dry spell that has persisted for over a month, adversely affecting crops in many parts of Zimbabwe, could mean a lean year ahead for farmers.
"I am not even looking forward to picking a few green mealies [corn on the cob] to roast from my maize crop," said Merjury Mapanda, 55, a widow who looks after three grandchildren in Chirumanzu district, some 120km southeast of Gweru, capital of Midlands Province.
"All my sweat has gone to waste because the rains went away when the maize crop had reached a crucial stage and needed water very much," she said.
Mapanda planted her maize in early November 2010 and the crop was doing well until the end of January 2011, when the dry weather started.
"I assumed that the rains were giving us a break to tend our fields, but when the scorching sun persisted for more than three weeks, I became worried," she told IRIN. "The rains returned for only one day... up to now, we have had to watch as the crops wilted."
Even if the rains did return, it would be too late. "It is better to have the cattle and goats feeding on the crops because we are not going to harvest anything, with the exception perhaps of a few who planted early in October."
In the Goromonzi district in Mashonaland East Province, Josphat Ngwerume, 48, a communal farmer, had also been looking forward to a bumper harvest after a good start to the rainy season, but he has not been able to bring himself to visit his fields for the past two weeks.
"It reminds me of how much sweat I shed for nothing, and how much money I wasted. I harvested only enough to last me for three months last year and have been buying maize meal from the shops," he told IRIN.
"It seems the situation is worse this year, and I don't know where I will get the money to buy food for the children."
Denford Chimbwanda, president of the Grain and Cereal Producers Association (GPCA), described the lack of rain as "devastating".
"Farmers are facing a very serious situation because of the dry spell. As an organization, we have done a preliminary assessment... and discovered that thousands of hectares of farmland on which different types of crops were being grown have been destroyed," he told IRIN.
"Communal and resettled farmers are the most affected because they don't have irrigation facilities, but even commercial farmers will have their harvests crippled by the dry spell. The net effect of this is that Zimbabwe will have to depend on imports to meet its food requirements," Chimbwanda said.
Zimbabwe's 10-year economic crisis has taken a heavy toll on the country's agricultural sector. The high cost and shortage of inputs like seed and fertilizer saw steep declines in maize production, the main staple.
Harvests improved in 2009 and 2010, but about 1.7 million people are still food insecure and in need of assistance according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
Innocent Makwiramiti, an economist based in the capital, Harare, said the need to import food would drive up prices, particularly maize, with a negative impact on the food security of poor households in rural as well as urban areas.
"They will not have enough money to buy adequate food, since the majority of them are already struggling to make ends meet," he noted.
However, Catherine Manase, spokesperson for the Food Security Network (FOSENET) a national NGO, told IRIN that while the dry spell had severely stressed crops, it was still too early to assess the extent of the damage.
"Assessments of the effects of the dry spell on food security are being carried out by various organizations, and it will not be possible to quantify the damage before they complete their studies," she said.
"The major problem is that farmers are no longer able to properly time their planting because of the changing climatic patterns, a situation that makes it vital for experts to trace the new trends and come up with conclusive recommendations on when to plant."
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), which monitors food security in the region, noted in its latest update that "a positive crop production outlook [for Zimbabwe] has been halted by low rainfall", with the southern half of the country most affected.