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CLIMATE CHANGE: Waiting for the “Heavens to Weep”

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Dec 20 2011 (IPS) - Duduzile Sibanda takes a break from preparing her long stretch of land for her maize crop in rural Mberengwa, in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province. She wipes her brow under the scorching sun and looks upwards. The sparse clouds are a cause of concern as she studies the sky and wonders aloud when the “heavens will weep.”

More than 70 percent of Africans – the majority of whom are women –rely on farming for survival.  Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

More than 70 percent of Africans – the majority of whom are women –rely on farming for survival. Credit: Ignatius Banda/IPS

A smallholder farmer all her life, the 57-year-old grandmother is worried about the late rainfall this planting season. Even the indigenous knowledge she has used all her life to study the seasons has failed her. Planting season here usually begins in October with the rains, but in early December they are yet to fall.

“We are headed for another drought,” she muses with palpable frustration.

After last year’s poor harvest Sibanda does not wish to contemplate another year of low crop yield, especially here in the rural areas where villagers grow their own food.

Sibanda finds herself at the centre of growing climate change concerns that have altered cropping seasons, turning long-followed planting cycles on their head. Traditionally planting season in Zimbabwe begins in early October.


“We have always studied the sky to know when the season starts. We do not know anymore,” Sibanda tells IPS.

Jennifer Nkomo, Sibanda’s neighbour, says she is all too aware about the threat of poor harvests and fears the delayed rains could mean she will be lining up for food assistance.

“What we have always wanted is to be able to feed ourselves but without the rains this won’t happen and we cannot afford to curse the skies,” Nkomo says, expressing the frustration that has become palpable here among smallholder farmers.

“We only want the skies to open,” she says.

But when the rains do come, the levels are not the same as they have been in the past. According to the Zimbabwe Meteorological Service Department, “below normal to normal” rainfall began in Midlands province on Dec. 18, more than two months after they were expected to start.

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), which is working with the Zimbabwean government to formulate a climate change policy, says early research on the impact of climate change suggests the country will have to cope with changing rainfall patterns, temperature increases and more extreme weather events, like floods and droughts.

CDKN says that longer and more frequent droughts could substantially reduce crop yields, including that of maize – the country’s staple crop.

Sobona Mtisi, a climate change expert leading the CDKN research in Zimbabwe says, “The changing climate is adversely affecting production.”

“This is in view of the discernable shifts in climate, a shift also marked by frequent droughts,” Mtisi says.

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union (ZCFU) says smallholder farmers across the country have seen reduced yields of between 50 and 75 percent this year as compared to the yield in 2000. Years of interrupted farming activities after the launch of the land reform programme in 2000, coupled with climatic shifts, have seen Zimbabwe experiencing successive poor harvests.

This year only 800,000 tonnes of crop was harvested against an expected 1,2 million tonnes, according to the ZCFU.

It has raised concerns about the need for alternative agricultural methods to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Today, Zimbabwe is a major importer of maize from its neighbours, paying 270 million dollars to import one million tonnes of maize this year.

“Smallholder farmers have especially been affected by climatic shifts as they have no clue about when not to plant and when to plant, as the knowledge systems they use are proving useless,” says Josh Manyora, of environment watchdog Environment Africa.

“In the absence of programmes that teach people in the most remote of rural areas about the weather, the climate and new agriculture techniques that respond to climate change challenges, I think we will have these problems each year,” Manyora says.

The Famine Early Warning System Network, the United States-based food security monitor announced in November that more than one million Zimbabweans will require food assistance in the coming year amid signs that the country will not be able to grow enough food to feed itself.

Food security remains tied to the challenges presented by climate change, says the University of Cape Town’s Climate Systems Analysis Group, which has noted that rain-fed agro-systems in Africa are bearing the brunt of climate change.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) says, “for hundreds of millions of people in Africa, climate change is not about lowering smoke stack emissions or turning off electric lights. It is about whether or not they will have enough to eat.”

Sibanda and Nkomo know this only too well. But they are just two of the more than 70 percent of Africans – the majority of whom are women – who AGRA says rely on farming for survival.

 
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