By STEPHEN KAPAMBWE -
IT is no longer debatable that dry spells experienced in southern Africa have created an urgent need to address countries’ over-reliance on hydropower generation as a source of energy.
It is equally becoming clear that over-reliance on certain staple foods like maize needs a rethink.
This is in view of indicators pointing to difficult times ahead as a number of countries in Africa prepare for yet another difficult year of possible crop failure arising from poor rainfall.
In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has declared a state of disaster in rural parts of the country hit by drought.
According to a story published by the BBC, an estimated 2.4 million people are now in need of food aid, more than a quarter of the population.
President Mugabe’s announcement comes days after the European Union (EU) urged him to declare a state of disaster so that donors can raise money quickly to provide food aid.
The government has urged Zimbabweans not to panic, as it is importing maize from Zambia.
The United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) has warned that some 14 million people face hunger in southern Africa because of a drought that has been exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon.
South Africa, Namibia and Botswana have also been badly hit.
Zimbabwe has been experiencing abnormally low rainfall since last year, leading to the deaths of thousands of cattle whose grazing areas have become parched.
“With rains failing almost completely this year, the situation is getting desperate,” Jan Vossen, Zimbabwe director for the charity Oxfam, told the BBC.
“In certain parts of the country, we even see that people and local farmers are using the thatch of their roofs to feed their cattle,” he said.
The agricultural sector has been the worst affected, with tobacco and cotton farmers also bracing themselves for disaster, reported the BBC’s Nomsa Maseko from Johannesburg.
South Africa is equally grappling with what has been described as the worst drought the country has ever faced in 30 years.
Many small scale farmers are expected to go out of business as food production and prices increase, especially in the Free State Province.
South African Weather Services say the drought, blamed on El Nino, is the worst to hit the country since 1982.
Although El Nino is a natural cycle that scientists have observed for many years, they have little doubt that climate change is also a factor in the lack of rain.
The South African government has declared five of its nine provinces drought disaster areas for agriculture.
In towns like Wepener, located 452 km (280 miles) from Johannesburg, the devastation is evident on the landscape, which is normally lush and green during the summer months.
Many farmers in such towns are struggling to find water and fodder for their livestock.
Some are forced to sell as many of their livestock as possible to avoid livestock fatalities.
South Africa has declining but sufficient stock levels of white maize until the end of April; yellow maize stocks will be very tight.
South African commercial farmer Pitso Sekhoto told the BBC that his country had never seen such deterioration.
“The country may be forced to start importing maize, food prices are bound to go up and those who are often referred to as the poor of the poor will suffer the most,” he said.
Poor rainfall has resulted in late planning, which also means insufficient cattle fodder to last through the winter months.
By December last year, water restrictions had been imposed in major cities.
Residents were warned to use water sparingly, only to water their gardens at certain times or face penalties.
Namibia, Botswana, and Malawi are also taking measures to counter the effects of poor rainfall.
East Africa has equally affected.
Towards the end of last year, Tanzania, one of the drought affected countries, resorted to shutting down all hydropower stations due to low water levels at all its electricity generation sites.
Further north of Tanzania, Ethiopia has in the last few days asked for international aid to cope with drought.
BBC’s Alastair Leithead and Dire Dawa reported that although the country had changed a great deal since 1984 when hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians died of hunger, El Nino has dried up the rainfall and drought has once again turned the land to dust.
Ahmed Dubet Roble who was found at a gathering of around 1,400 families in Fedeto, said her family had lost all its livestock.
“So we are here to seek support.There’s no pasture, no water. We have never seen anything like this before,” she said.
Ethiopia’s ministry of Agriculture has started importing food through Djibouti.
The imports are transported via the country’s new electrified railway to local populations.
Ethiopia already committed more than US$380 million (£260m) of its own money to buying aid and using its new Chinese-built railway that cuts hundreds of miles through the parched countryside from the port in Djibouti.
Ethiopia had to turn to the international community for help.
“The reason why we say we need support is not necessarily because everything is beyond the pale,” said Communications Minister Getachew Reda, who said his government will do everything to stop people dying for want of food.
“But rather, because the best way to maintain the gross trajectory and at the same insulate our people from disaster, is by working with our partners.”
Ethiopia has worked hard on building its life savings – its developing economy – and by asking for help now it’s trying to protect its family silver.
Ethiopia says if the rain does start in March to May, it would help in terms of water availability. But that would not immediately result in harvest.
The El Nino weather pattern has worsened the drought in Ethiopia and if the next rains also fail, far more people in the country would be affected, and those already needing help will need it far longer.
The Zambian Government has assured the nation that the country has sufficient grain. But steps have been put in place by the Government to prepare for food imports from Brazil in case of scarcity.
Speaking during a meeting with Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva in Rome after his visit to the Vatican City where he met Pope Francis, President Edgar Lungu said Zambia is determined to promote best practices in agriculture to enhance food security.
Mr Lungu said food security is an integral part of development.
He said Zambia would work closely with FAO to address the challenges that had resulted from climate change.
He said his administration had taken steps to bolster better methods of agriculture and value-addition to agricultural produce.
Mr Lungu said through the ministry of Gender, Zambia is also eager to reposition women in the agriculture sector.
“My meeting with the FAO director-general has fortified my belief that food security is the right way to go. In Zambia, we believe that if you feed a woman, you feed a family.
“There is no dignity in hunger, and so we will work with FAO to promote value-addition to our agricultural produce,” he said.
But whereas steps have been put in place to ensure hunger is kept at bay, the threat posed by adverse weather conditions arising from climate change are not short term and would therefore not go away anytime soon.
If anything, the UN climate change summit held in Paris a few months ago painted a gloomy picture about what the future holds for African countries.
The summit, which drew delegates from 196 countries, warned that Africa is expected to be one of the continents hardest hit by climate change, with more severe droughts, floods and storms expected to threaten the health of populations and economies alike.
In view of such warnings by UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the need for populations in countries like Zambia to adopt climate resilient initiatives and avoid overreliance on certain food crops cannot be over emphasised.
There is urgent need, not just for the Government, but for individuals, to reconsider consumption of thirsty crops like maize to drought resilient alternatives like cassava, millet and sorghum which do not require a lot of water to grow.
At a recent meeting with stakeholders, Energy Minister Dora Siliya said maize was a thirsty crop that consumes too much water.
Although crops like cassava and sorghum are widely grown in provinces like Southern and Western which are prone to extreme weather conditions like droughts and floods, the crops only make up a small part of the food requirements of local populations except in Northern and Muchinga provinces where, traditionally, cassava, millet and sorghum have been milled and eaten side by side with maize meal.
As has been alluded to by the UNWFP, 14 million people face hunger in southern Africa alone as a result of poor rainfall. That number might grow.
The need to diversify consumption habits and practices to assure future food security at individual, household, community and national level is something President Lungu referred to in his opening address to the National Assembly.
“…we, as a nation, need to be adaptive, innovative and determined to change the way we do things.
“In this regard, the theme for my address is ‘Embracing a transformational culture for a smart Zambia now’.
“To attain this transformation, we need to change the way we think, behave and do things.
“Our transformational culture should, therefore, start with each and every one of us getting involved.
“In this transformation, we must leave the past behind and embrace positive attitudes in all our endeavours,” Mr Lungu said.