Zimbabwe: Building resilience key to solving food insecurity

26 Nov 2012

Grace Mahembe plants grain from a dried maize cob she saved from last year’s harvest , hoping for a better yield. Successive droughts have eroded her seed stock and reduced her harvest. Credit: OCHA
Irrigation could bring improved yields and lower prices.

The image of Grace Mahembe, an elderly solitary figure hunched in a sandy field against the blazing heat of rural Mutare in Manicaland, paints a bleak picture of Zimbabwe’s food situation.

At the end of October, Grace was the only person working in the fields, ploughing in the hope of a miracle, although the planting season had not started and there was no sign of rain.

“The hunger in my house has forced me to get out and do something,” she said as she plucked and planted grain from a dried maize cob. “The last season was not kind to me so I could not afford maize seed. This is all I have,” she said, adding that successive droughts had eroded her seed stock while depriving her of a harvest.  The rudimentary hoe in her hand, with a rag tied to the handle to protect her hands from blistering, tells a story of a resilient, diligent woman whose efforts have been frustrated by climatic conditions.

Successive droughts and subsequent poor harvests have left some regions of Zimbabwe vulnerable to food insecurity, pushing people into reliance on food aid. According to a recent assessment, more than 1.6 million people - about 19 per cent of the rural population – are expected to need food assistance during the peak of the hunger period from January to March 2013. The report estimated that in October, 1 million people were already food insecure and in need of urgent assistance, compared to 650,000 at the same time last year.

The World Food Programme notes that food insecurity in Zimbabwe in 2012/13 is worse than the last three years, while cereal prices remain high. By July, partners involved in food assistance were reporting high prices, empty granaries and negative coping strategies like selling livestock. Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South, parts of Mashonaland, Midlands and Manicaland provinces were worst affected.

Some people, like Grace, had nothing to sell. At face value, Grace -- a landowner -- does not appear to be food insecure and does not qualify for humanitarian assistance programmes. Grace herself does not want food handouts.

“Handouts can never satisfy anyone, they make one dependent on other people for survival,” she says with pride, adding that she prefers to work to earn her keep. Her son, Fungai Tsarwe, added that he thought the best way to offer hope to people who were food insecure was to improve access to water.  

“We are in between two rivers but we cannot access water,” said Fungai. “If we could get assistance to bring water closer to the people we would not have problems with hunger,” he said.

Government officials and NGOs have noted that Zimbabwe’s greatest challenge is access to water as farming activities are highly dependent on rainfall while some areas are arid. Climate change has altered rainfall patterns, creating the need for longer-term solutions like irrigation schemes.

“Water is a priority need and irrigation schemes and boreholes are what communities have highlighted during rural appraisals,” says Oppah Rukara, Programmes Coordinator of Caritas Masvingo Diocese. Mikia Majatame, acting Chief Executive Officer of Chiredzi Rural District Council, argues that irrigation schemes have worked before in Zimbabwe so the infrastructure is already in place, but is in need of repair.  

Experts says irrigated agriculture produces substantially higher yields than dryland agriculture and brings a range of benefits including increased and more stable income flow; increased land values; better opportunities and higher wages for farm labourers; reduced migration from rural areas and increased rates of return; lower food prices and better nutrition throughout the year; and more water for non-agricultural uses, including domestic uses that improve hygiene and health.

As Zimbabwe faces the effects of climate change and with droughts forecast to become more frequent, there must be a greater focus on irrigation schemes as part of a broader vision of sustainable solutions that build resilience. 

More>> OCHA Zimbabwe website

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