14 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Water, Water Everywhere - and No Early Warning in Sight

analysis

Gwanda — Muzeka Muyeyekwa from Mapfekera Village in Zimbabwbe's Manicaland Province wonders what he will feed his three children for lunch.

The family's basic food supplies have run out and they cannot replenish them as the bridge that crosses the local Nyadira River, which links this village with the outside world and the Watsomba shopping centre, was washed away in January during the flash floods that spread across the country. Manicaland Province, which borders Mozambique, is among the worst hit as it has seen almost 1 metre of rain since mid-January.

However, a few village daredevils have used the disaster to make a quick dollar by swimming across the flooded river with supplies - charging treble the price or more for basic goods.

"We cannot cross the river to go to the grinding mill or to get basic food supplies," Muyeyekwa tells IPS. "The only supplies reaching us are the expensive items brought by the daredevils."

Other villagers say that their food supplies are running low and worry that the authorities are not acting fast enough to repair the bridge.

But the local district council chief executive, George Bandure, tells IPS that the council is mobilising resources for the reconstruction of the destroyed bridge.

Mapfekera community is not the only one struggling to cope with unseasonal heavy rains here.

According to the latest United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report on Zimbabwe, heavy January rainfall across the country affected an estimated 8,490 people, "of which 4,615 people require humanitarian assistance in the form of emergency shelter and non-food items."

The government's Civil Protection Unit estimates that up to 5,000 people across the country lost their homes in the flooding, while the police say about 100 people have drowned - all since late last year.

Nearly 2,000 school children in the Chiredzi and Mwenezi Districts in Masvingo Province are being taught outside as torrential rainfall recently destroyed classrooms in 28 schools.

Clifford Tshuma, a smallholder farmer in rural Gwanda, in Matabeleland South Province, stands by and watches the effect that a surprise heavy downpour has on his maize crop. It flattens the stalks, leaving the plants ruined.

"I did not see it coming," Tshuma tells IPS.

Climate experts in this southern African nation say that the plight of rural populations is worsened by the lack of sufficient weather monitoring systems that are able to provide early awareness of rainfall levels.

"Zimbabwe sometimes finds itself less equipped to predict, unprepared to plan for, and respond to floods," Sobona Mtisi, a climate researcher with the Overseas Development Institute's Water Policy Programme, tells IPS. The institute has partnered with the Zimbabwean government to formulate climate change policy. "Early warning systems that focus on floods are not yet well developed, especially at the local level. These factors combine to ensure that the country is always caught off guard."

Since mid-January, heavy rains have hit Zimbabwe's Matabeleland South and North Provinces as well as Masvingo Province, which are traditionally considered dry areas.

According to the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services, the Matabeleland South and North Provinces have seen rainfall of around 300 millimetres since the beginning of the year - at least three times higher than the expected rainfall for the provinces.

"This is much lower than other provinces," Zimbabwe Meteorological Services chief, Tich Zinyemba, tells IPS, pointing to Manicaland Province, which borders Mozambique and has recorded up to 1,000 millimetres during the same period. "But [the rainfall in Matabeleland] is still unusually high for such arid regions."

Adjusting to a new reality

Until the rains began in mid-January, the Matabeleland South and North Provinces were in the midst of a drought. Local online publication Bulawayo24 News reported that between July and December 2012 some 9,000 cattle in the Matabeleland South region had died due to the ongoing drought. Now they are perishing because of the ensuing floods, the publication reported.

"Floods are recent phenomena in Zimbabwe, and as such, the country is still adjusting to this new reality," Mtisi says, explaining that floods began occurring here in 2000 when Cyclone Eline swept across southern Africa.

Mtisi says that the occurrence of heavy rains, which leave destruction in their wake, has become somewhat predictable over the past decade. He adds that with adequate preparation, these losses can be averted or minimised.

"From 2000 to 2010, Zimbabwe had four floods, some of which induced by cyclones, such as Cyclone Eline (in 2000) and Cyclone Japhet (in 2003). This means that we have a flood, every two and a half years," Mtisi says.

"The problem is that Zimbabwe does not have sufficient resources, mainly technical and financial, to predict, plan for, and manage floods. I do not think that the hydro-meteorological monitoring departments of Zimbabwe National Water Authority, Meteorological Department, and the Civil Protection Department have adequate funds to efficiently undertake flood preparedness and management activities," he says.

Mtisi says that despite efforts by international relief agencies to mitigate these loses, more still needs to be done.

"Although several systems for monitoring hydro-meteorological data are in place, managed by regional and international bodies, such as the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the Southern African Development Community Hydrological Cycle Observing System, they are insufficient," Mtisi says.

It will be useful for Zimbabwe to develop an extensive network of hydro-meteorological stations that monitor river flows and floods, he says, through agencies such as the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services and the Zimbabwe National Water Authority.

Very high frequency systems are currently being installed in the country's flood-prone areas to ensure that the people there are able to communicate with different disaster management units that are meant to warn them of high rainfall and potential disasters.

The point now is how to ensure these systems are operational and working properly, says Tapuwa Gomo, a development expert who has worked with international relief agencies in some of Zimbabwe's flood-prone area.

*Additional Reporting by Nyarai Mudimu in Manicaland Province

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