The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Climate Change - Farming's Biggest Threat

COLLECTING memories from Zimbabwe's 32-year history, the reforms on land ownership stand prominent, apart from political freedom. The reforms represented a major shift in the balance of economic power within the agriculture sector, after Government transferred millions of hectares of fertile arable land to over 300 000 marginalised indigenous peasants from a few thousand white farmers.

For the new farmers -- both large-scale commercial and small-scale farmers not to mention their subsistence counterparts -- their biggest mandate is to provide food for the nation and for export.

But since the start of the fast track land reforms over 10 years ago, that goal is yet to be met.

During this period, Zimbabwe has been forced to import, on average, 50 percent of its annual grain requirements to cover local deficits. The reasons for poor food and agricultural production in a land-reformed Zimbabwe are numerous, key among them lack of funding, inputs shortage and lack of adequate agriculture skills as well as laziness.

However, the biggest challenge to farming and food security in the country today is not funding, it is not skills shortage but climate change and global warming.

Changing climatic and weather systems pose a serious threat to agriculture, as they have disrupted rains, caused droughts and resulted in higher average temperatures.

They attack the very core of activities that make the farmers who they are, empowered individuals, whom without their overflowing agriculture produce, are just like every other individual -- disempowered and powerless needing aid.

Now, as Zimbabwe reflects on 32 years of self-rule, there is need to ensure that new approaches to farming practices are developed and implemented so as to limit the impacts of climate change, and preserve gains from the land reforms.

Climate change has increased the risk of stalling productivity in resettled lands for the long term, and yet in the short term it has been merciless.

Several farmers in Masvingo, the Midlands and Matabeleland regions, where precipitation has fallen by up to 15 percent over the last century, have come face to face with, and blown away by the devastating effects of climate change, particularly the increased frequency of droughts and hunger.

Even some areas in Mashonaland, which have traditionally received higher rainfall are now under stress and constantly requiring food aid.

On Independence Day President Mugabe said Government would this year provide significant food assistance to thousands of families in rural areas following a poor 2011/2012 agriculture season, which received below normal rainfall.

Zimbabwe consumes at least 2 million tonnes of maize annually, split in the ratio 1,4 million tonnes for humans and the remainder for animal and other uses.

A recent crop assessment from the Ministry of Agriculture indicates that the country's grain needs will be short 2 million tonnes this year.

What has actually unsettled farmers and jeopardised proper agriculture planning is the changes in rainfall patterns, such as the shifts in mean start and end dates of the rainfall season.

Whereas Zimbabwe's peak rainfall season has traditionally been recorded in the October to January period, these conditions are no longer as predictable.

Over the last few planting seasons, rains have been seen setting on late in December, or not at all, lasting in intermittent fashion to as late as April.

Most farmers including agricultural extension workers have struggled to predict and keep up with such climatic changes resulting in very poor harvests.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation predicted in a report last year that yields from agriculture within sub-Saharan Africa will decline by between 20 percent and 50 percent by 2050 as a result of climate change.

In Zimbabwe, where average temperatures have risen 0,7 degrees Celsius since the early 1900s, yields have progressively fallen and continue to fall since the drought years of 1972, which trend has repeated itself after every 10 years from then on, it could be earlier. The Meteorological Services Department's Head Climate Applications Mr Tirivanhu Muhwati said in an interview in March that climate change was closely linked with severe weather events.

These include intense tropical cyclones, prolonged heavy rains and prolonged droughts, which if no action was taken in time could evolve from hazards into disasters.

Ultimately, he said, climate change has the potential to reverse gains made towards attaining the Millennium Development Goals and to upset the very basis of socio-economic and political systems whose fallout effects, if disturbed, will affect the poor and vulnerable the most.

Climate change is a major scientific and developmental issue, which must now be addressed at the highest level of Government, not through piecemeal structures but via sweeping policy changes.

To protect and promote Zimbabwe's land reforms and galvanise the empowerment drive, emphasis must now be placed on policy action that encourages sustainable agriculture practices, mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

It is clear, climate change is irreversible, similarly so the land programmes, which means farmers should explore new farming methods such as clean smart agriculture, conservation farming, less dependency on rainfed agriculture, planting of drought-resistant crop varieties as well as adopting community-based adaptation and mitigatory measures.

Although agriculture is one of the worst affected sectors by climate change, it is also paradoxically one of the biggest drivers of this catastrophic phenomenon.

Carbon emissions from land degradation, land clearing as well as deforestation for agriculture purposes account for more than 15 percent of all global emissions.

Carbon emissions are the number one catalyst for global warming and climate change.

In Zimbabwe alone, deforestation for tobacco curing and other agriculture activities account for up to 50 percent of all forest loss.

It is therefore incumbent on the farmer to embrace sustainable agricultural methods in order to contain climate change and its impacts.

God is faithful.

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