27 December 2012

Zimbabwe Ill-Prepared for Rainfall Extremes, Farmers Say

Photo: Aliyu Adekunle S/Vanguard
File photo: The rains have caused widespread damage to roads leaving some areas impassable.

Bulawayo — Thumeliso Matshobana knows what the devastation of too much water looks like.

A smallholder farmer in Zimbabwe's Midlands, he watched helplessly last year as floods destroyed crops, livestock, homes and schools. The heavy rains, he says, came as "a total surprise."

The floods left a trail of destruction in traditionally dry and impoverished rural areas of the Midlands and Matebeleland, and rebuilding has been a slow and painful process.

"We want rain but not the kind that kills us and destroys our livelihoods. But no one ever seems to know exactly the kind of rains we will have," Matshobana lamented.

That "makes it hard for us villagers to make necessary preparations," he said, expressing what has become a common sentiment about unpredictable rain patterns that seem to vex even the country's meteorological services department.

The Met office, as it is known in Zimbabwe, issued a flood advisory in late November, predicting heavy downpours. But because the Met office has been off the mark many times in the past with its weather predictions, which are now questioned by farmers and disaster preparedness organizations, farmers such as Matshobana find themselves with little idea what to expect or what to do to prepare for floods.

Japhet Hadebe, a climate change researcher working with the Zimbabwe Environment Research Organisation (ZERO) says climate change monitoring remains "a complicated issue in Zimbabwe."

"This is the reason why you see that each year flood warnings only come as the phenomenon is already on its way, making it extremely difficult to prevent any losses to life or livestock," Hadebe said.

Zimbabwe "still lacks sophisticated weather tracking systems. That is why many people have lost faith in the Met department," he said.


Last year, Zimbabwe's government, in conjunction with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), began researching potential climate change policy responses in Zimbabwe as a result of growing agricultural and economic losses from unpredictable weather. The results are expected to be released soon.

Farmer unions however say they have continued to lose crops to sudden floods that they have not been warned about.

"It has been extremely difficult in the past few years, especially to know the kind of rains to expect. Floods come to us as a total surprise when we had earlier been advised of poor rainfall ahead," said Thokozani Jama, of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union.

"This has meant that farmers simply follow their own traditional planting patterns even if rainfall is far off. When you plant and the next few weeks there are floods, it means your crop fails despite the plentiful water. Last year, the heavy rains came at a time when many of us were expecting that they we should be harvesting but our crop had already been destroyed by the absence of rain," Jama said.

Experts say climate shifts have been especially troublesome for some African countries such as Zimbabwe where political commitment to climate change research has lagged despite evidence that the countries will be among the most affected by the changes.

Tapuwa Gomo a development expert who has worked along the Zambezi River on international flood relief efforts, says early warning systems could be one way to save lives and property as rainfall becomes more unpredictable.

But "the best form of preparedness is raising awareness among those in the flood-prone areas to take the necessary measures before the floods," he said.

Floods along the Zambezi Valley have become an annual source of human and livestock losses, raising concerns about whether enough is being done to minimise the impact of climatic shifts, he said.

"In my experience working with people along Zambezi River in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the question of what needs to be done to help them is a difficult one. The biggest challenge in these areas is that people's livelihoods are knit around the Zambezi River with activities such as fishing and winter season cropping," Gomo said.

Similarly, for farmers like Matshobana who live in Zimbabwe's low rainfall areas, there seems little answer to the problem of getting too little or too much rain, particularly outside the normal rainy season.

"That's what we have come to accept," Matshobana said.

Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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