The harrowing news of villagers and school children being buried alive and then washed away while they slept in their huts, houses and dormitories and images of villagers picking decapitated human limbs horrified Zimbabweans and the entire world.
The traumas and horrors of Cyclones Idai and Kenneth will, in many respects, form part of a shared intergenerational memory, forever etched in the mind, hearts and lives of the communities, and every landscape of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands and Masvingo, and in particular, Chimanimani, Chipinge and Bikita districts, as well as in Malawi and Mozambique.
Questions have been asked in the wake of these tragedies. Were the districts and communities of Manicaland Province and some parts of Masvingo victims of the rare moments when nature gets eccentric and freaks out, only to stabilize again? Or was this a wake up call to the irrefutable reality and hair-raising effects of climate change?
During the week running up to the 15th of March, 2019, Cyclone Idai was at its peak, characterized by enormous speed, topping an average of 205 kilometers per hour and large bodies of raging water close to 10 kilometres in diametre, stampeded through and destroyed everything in their wake, and picking debris including large boulders like they were discarded cans or plastic containers. This cyclone was far worse than previous cyclones which hit the Eastern Highlands.
The raging flood waters, mud and other debris buried people alive, some never to be found for decent burial. They also swept away homes, crops and livestock, carried away roads and bridges and indeed anything in the path of the flood waters as they retreated to the Indian Ocean. This explains why, not one hut, bridge, house or classroom block remained standing in the storms’ way!
While Government, Non Governmental Organizations, the business community and ordinary citizens were in the process of mobilizing and appealing for assistance and protection for victims of Cyclone Idai, another more menacing cyclone, Kenneth, picked momentum in the northern part of Indian Ocean headed towards Malawi and Mozambique. Thankfully, it dissipated before it hit Manicaland again, although, tragically, its horrendous impact was felt in Mozambique .
The double whammy cyclonic attacks in the months of March and April 2019 traumatised and horrified the communities and the region beyond measure, as they realised just how exposed and vulnerable they were to the vagaries of climate change. It was clear that although countries have contingent disaster reduction programmes, and institutions for civil protection, these were not fully prepared for these two cyclones. Indeed, these cyclones signaled an unprecedented phenomenon in Southern Africa.
According to UNICEF an “estimated 270,000 families people, including 129,600 children, affected by flooding remain in need of critical, lifesaving support to enable them to recover from the impact of the floods caused by Cyclone Idai in all affected districts”.
This is by no means a small number, given that hundreds of people died in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and many more remain unaccounted for.
Even with the best of preparations, the calibre of the cyclones that hit and ravaged the Eastern Highlands were extreme and would require meticulous and adequately resourced strategies for cyclone proofing and mitigation in the event of reoccurrence.
The cyclones evoke the need for further analytic exploration of the relationship between climate and cyclones. The relationships that play out of the broader climate change are new, especially when Cyclone Idai’s traits of disaster are analyzed from all angles.
Some of these include: the speed, the ability to lift huge masses of water and other debris, the direction it took, its ability to move across high land masses (mountainous areas) and the ability to sustain its inland progression.
The reality of intensity and frequency of cyclones calls for a serious adjustment, even overhaul of the lifestyles and even their livelihoods of the people in the Eastern Highlands, while demonstrating the need for further interrogation of the relationship between climate and cyclones.
Evidently, this relationship is affected and influenced by the broader impacts of climate change, which have tended to be lethal and catastrophic particularly to vulnerable rural communities that depend on nature for livelihoods.
Climate Change Tendencies with Sequels of Extreme Weather Events
Climate change is a reality, and Zimbabwe remains prone to the regular spikes in elements that constitute climate change. These elements include years of heavy rainfall that have varied spatial distribution, with areas that used to have rainfall of 1000mm receiving less rain.
In some years for example 2016/17 areas that hardly received 33mm per season were marked by heavy floods with rainfall hitting 1000mm> and continuing to heavy floods that needed people to be moved for safety, and that was Cyclone Dineo.
Yet, the behavior of rainfall is on aspect of climate change that is also associated with extremes of temperatures in some years, for example in 2015 where for the months of October and November the temperature were averaging 40 degrees Celsius. However, high temperatures are countered by changes in winters, with early onset of winters and extreme cold days or nights.
However, the experiences of these extreme temperature changes, and associated spikes of rainfall changes by area have made it difficult for households and communities to plan adequately. It is however the agriculture sector dominated by smallholder farmers that have had the worst experiences.
The interplay of years of plenty and years of serious food deficits, makes it most difficult for households to plan for their food needs, and the contributions to the national agriculture outputs also varies with more years of less production.
However, it is the destructive tendencies of cyclone on livelihoods that make them potent, and leave large communities in shocks, trauma and a grieving that is of concern. There are notable signs that the environment in which we live has dramatically changed, in most cases beyond the capacity of humans to cope with the changes.
The Cost of Recent Cyclones in the Eastern Highlands
Communities living in cyclone paths now know that these are powerful forces associated with wide scale destruction over a very short period of time, sometimes lasting only a few days. They quickly spread on land, with widespread heavy rains that persist for days, which lead to floods, they fizzle out and dissipate.
Cyclones come at great cost to human life, livestock, housing, social services (schools, health facilities, public government infrastructures) farms, crops, and farming infrastructure, vegetation, etc. In addition, cyclones are real threats due to increases in regional and global temperatures.
According to the Global Warming 1.5 Degrees Report of October 2018 Zimbabwe’s approximately 1.5 million smallholder farmers depending on rain fed agriculture are likely to under-perform, with huge implications on the costs of food not only to this population, but also in the urban areas. The rate of urbanization is very high in Zimbabwe, which translates into increased demand for food.
Yet, the macroeconomic situation, with rapid changes in the public finance and monetary policies and severe austerity measures, add to the climate-induced pain the populace and economy are already enduring.
As if the above are not enough, the loss of sensitive ecosystems and biodiversity coupled with land degradation due to soil erosion are escalating the loss of land for agriculture.
The increasingly frequent and more severe droughts and flooding events are destroying agricultural livelihoods and infrastructure. The cyclones are a call for urgent action to raise awareness and take practical measures to protect the communities that are most vulnerable. In often cases, these are smallholder farmers producing a variety of commodities (banana, tea, coffee, macadamia nuts, horticulture, fruits etc.) that is typical of the Eastern Highlands.
At the Crossroads of Climate Vulnerability and Extremes of Cyclones
That Zimbabwe is vulnerable to climate change is beyond now. While cyclones are a major concern, there are patterns of regular dry seasons interchanging with wet seasons, in a cyclical fashion, which invariably affect agriculture and its output. Every two to three years is the interspace when a drought occurs.
The water stresses experienced mean less agricultural performance and widespread hunger. The flooding and other extremes such as frost and hail affect smallholder agriculture and tend to reduce yields.
Within the parameters of the floods and droughts is the recurrence of pests and diseases affecting crops and livestock. These could be severe like the January Disease (Theliosis) that is now contributing to livestock mortality throughout the year, unlike in the past when it was seasonal.
The patterns of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) show rapid spread throughout the country. In the cropping sector the Fall Army Worm (FAW) has also been a persistent pest affecting maize production. The control of pests and spread of diseases, require more scientific research to explore if there is any direct relationship with climate change.
Agriculture calls for greater outlay of financial resources to control pests and diseases, while key infrastructure such as dams, roads, and related farm infrastructure need regular maintenance. However, the current economy is too hard pressed to sustain these additional climate related factors to the cost of agriculture.
Persistence of Hunger in the Context of Climate Change
Zimbabwe has become a regular recipient of UN mobilized food aid and is, to a large extent, underpinned by donor funding to sustain some of its obligations to its citizens. The help provided is appreciated, when the people of Zimbabwe face hunger.
We, however, need to get a few facts right. The impact of climate change has had a telling effect on Zimbabwe’s depleted food basket, even in years of surpluses, as in the 2015-16 season, as this means balancing “food credit” induced by previous poor seasons.
Thus, in anticipation of hunger, occasioned by a deficit in agricultural output, the United Nations together with the Government of Zimbabwe made an appeal for US$234 million to meet the needs of Zimbabwe’s dire situation in February 2019.
Of the funds in the appeal, some US$130 million was intended for food security while agriculture was to account for US$11.1 million. This was before the Cyclone Idai destruction, and ahead of the results of the first and second rounds of the national crop assessment, as it was clear that the country was experiencing a drought and would produce far less than the previous season, and without an adequate food bank to meet the shortages.
In fact, it was already predicted that at least 5.3 million households would need food assistance by June of 2019. These figures are staggering, and call for strategic engagements and interventions for sustainable long-term solutions to address the challenge of hunger and its ripple effects on the nation’s civic and socioeconomic stability and wellbeing.
In view of the adverse impact of climate change, Zimbabwe must commit to and invest in addressing the following: rebuilding institutions, land use replanning in view of climate, gathering detailed climatic and related data regimes, enhancing knowledge and its management, recalibrating disaster preparedness and mobilizing local and international financing.
The ability of Zimbabwe to achieve the sustainable development goals is under threat from climate change impacts. The patterns of change in climate, places hunger as central in both urban and rural areas, necessitating institutional mindset change that focus on practical and sustainable strategies to address the challenges.
Climate Smarting Established Indigenous knowledge
In Zimbabwe being Climate “smart” has become a bland ritual, observed for sentimental reasons but serving no specific purpose. Farmers have historically managed climate change with robust household mechanisms such as crop rotation, seed production, selection, storage from one season to the next and thus retaining a large seed bank.
In addition, they shift their patterns of land use based on their reading of the changes in their environment. The world coined “Climate Smart Agriculture” by detailing practices already being used by farmers, which in the past were regarded as the “farming of the poor”.
Zimbabweans have been hesitant to adopt conservation farming, which they mockingly regard as a donor-driven programme for cruel and punishing crop production procedure, which in local parlance was named “dig and die “ (Dhiga ufe).
While there were positive results in terms of yields per unit of land, this farming option has not ended wide scale hunger as touted.
Smallholder farmers have traditionally produced crops based on their climate regimes. The moment some commodities such as millets and sorghum were patronizingly promoted in a “donor-way”, communities became resistant and were reluctant to adopt, and usually produce them to satisfy donors who had overstayed in their communities, seeking relevance by teaching locals what they already knew before the donors came.
Zimbabwean traditional culture frowns upon chasing away of a visitor, even when they have overstayed their welcome. This seems to apply to some donor driven programmes pitched to address climate and hunger.
Some communities have embraced the “projects”, simply because the implementing international Non- Governmental Organization has been operating within and therefore intimately known by the local community for years. The communities tolerate what is introduced as new and innovative in the form of CSA, when it is actually ordinary indigenous knowledge received and passed on from centuries of practice.
It is, thus, critical to relook at the traditional practices to see what can innovatively be developed to help communities respond better to large-scale climate change. The changes experienced seem to be too large, unpredictable, devastating, and leave communities in a state in which they cannot rebound from a couple of seasons of poor production. An approach that lends to climate multi-sector approaches through strengthening the climate coalition for agriculture is badly needed in the context of Zimbabwe.
Beyond Appeals and Rebuilding Institutions for Climate Action
The changes experienced seem to be too large, unpredictable, devastating, and leave communities in a state in which they cannot rebound from a couple of seasons of poor production.
An approach that lends itself to climate multi-sector approaches through strengthening the climate coalition for agriculture is badly needed in the context of Zimbabwe.
In view of the adverse impact of climate change, if no action is taken Zimbabwe will remain in cyclical appeals for assistance. The area of need for strategic assistance include the following: rebuilding institutions, land use re-planning in view of climate, gathering detailed climatic and related data regimes, enhancing knowledge and its management, recalibrating disaster preparedness and mobilizing local and international financing.
The ability of Zimbabwe to achieve the sustainable development goals is under threat from climate change impacts. The patterns of change in climate, places hunger as central in both urban and rural areas, necessitating institutional mindset change that focus on acting to address the challenges.
Climate change is not a freak of nature. It is threatening to be a new normal, by destroying agriculture, the mainstay Zimbabwe’s economy. Our eccentric denialism cannot wish it away. It is time to wake up, smell the coffee, roll up our sleeves and confront climate change, eye-ball to eye-ball!
We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand any longer. The next cyclone would wash away the sand, and us, into the Indian Ocean!