Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Southern Africa has felt the brunt of the global climate crisis in the past year, with extreme weather patterns taking a toll on agricultural production and food security.

The numbers coming out of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) are devastating: 9-million people are considered severely food-insecure in just nine countries (Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The figure is projected to rise to 12-million by March. Just over 41-million are food-insecure in 13 of the 16 Sadc states; 25% of Eswatini’s rural population faces severe food insecurity; and 30% of the rural population of Lesotho is expected to require humanitarian assistance between now and March.

This is according to a September update from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the July "Synthesis Report on the State of Food & Nutrition Security & Vulnerability in Southern Africa" by Sadc’s vulnerability assessment & analysis programme.

In large part, the cause of the crisis is drought: there have been only two favourable planting seasons in the region since 2012, and some parts of the region have experienced their worst rainfall in 38 years.

In Angola, where more than 1.1-million people are in need of food because of drought, the government in January declared an emergency in the three southern provinces of Cunene, Huila, and Namibe.

Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia have done the same (the Comoros, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have declared states of emergency as a result of cyclones, though Mozambique and Zimbabwe have also been plagued by drought).

It’s the third time in six years that Namibia has declared a drought-induced state of emergency. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation says dry weather conditions in the country have driven down cereal production. The government’s crop assessment for the year estimates that production will be down 53% on last year. It’s pushed the price of maize meal up, with the result that the annual food inflation rate was estimated at 6% in March, against 3% a year earlier.

Zimbabwe’s maize harvest is also expected to be 54% lower than last year’s output. With 5.5-million people facing food insecurity, the country’s Grain Marketing Board earlier this year issued a tender to buy 750,000t of maize.

In Zambia, 1.7-million people are facing hunger — a number expected to rise to 2.3-million by March — after maize-producing areas in the south experienced their worst drought since 1981.

Though the government has not declared an emergency (see page 37), it has banned maize exports — the country is a primary maize exporter in the region — in an effort to mitigate the situation.

Simon Manda, a lecturer in rural livelihoods, value chains and agribusiness sustainability at the University of Zambia, says the impact of climate change is growing. "Reduced precipitation in drought areas and increased rainfall in [flood-prone areas] highlight how climate change can produce varying conditions within one country context. These have altered livelihood patterns and seriously eroded resilience capacities for affected areas."

In Zambia’s drought-affected provinces, mealie meal has become scarce, and prices across the country have rocketed, reaching a high of 150 kwacha (about R170) for a 25kg bag — a price beyond the reach of many Zambians.

"The minimum wage in Zambia is K1,000 [about R1,100 a month]," says Laura Miti, executive director of the Alliance for Community Action, an NGO that advocates for public resource accountability and equitable distribution. "It means people are using more than 10% of their salaries to get one bag of their staple starch (most families need two). We need to remember that many poor families were already on one meal a day when mealie meal was K50."

James Phiri, who recently lost his job in an insurance firm, is struggling to cope with the cost of food. "I am feeling a lot of pressure putting a bag of mealie meal on the table," he tells the FM. "It’s just too expensive now … I hope the government will do something to make it affordable."

Meanwhile, water bodies in the region are drying up.

Namibia, for example, said earlier this year that the Okavango River had dropped from 5.5m to 4.4m at the Rundu station because of poor rainfall in the Kwando Cubango catchment in Angola. The Zambezi River level at the Katima Mulilo station is 2.1m — from 6.37m a year ago.

The effects of poor rainfall and low water levels have also taken a toll on electricity production. The Zambezi River Authority, which manages the Kariba Dam on behalf of Zambia and Zimbabwe (the dam’s hydropower station generates the bulk of the two countries’ electricity), said earlier this year that the level of usable water in the lake was down to 25%, making it difficult to produce electricity.

Zimbabwe has been rationing power for up to 18 hours a day, while 13-hour blackouts in Zambia have affected the operation of hospitals, schools, businesses and water-supply installations. In the Copperbelt and Lusaka provinces, residents of some towns have gone without water for days as a result of power rationing.

"For one week now, in the [Chingola] town centre, Kasompe, Lulamba, Riverside, Chikola and surrounding areas of Chingola, water is only coming for an hour or two in the evenings or mornings due to load-shedding," a customer care assistant at Mulonga Water & Sewerage Co tells the FM.

The Lusaka Water & Sewerage Co also said in late August that it would embark on water rationing due to load-shedding.

In his state of the nation address last month, President Edgar Lungu said: "I have further seen small businesses such as makeshift stores … shutting down as they fail to cope with business due to load-shedding. How can a bakery owner run a business if in their manufacturing process power is turned off and at the same time water runs out? I see mothers and children in compounds walking long distances in search of water and queuing for it in the few places it is found."

While the government is accelerating the implementation of new power-generation projects with Zambia and Zimbabwe, the most immediate measure has been to import about 300MW of power from SA.

Despite the cost implications — consumers will have to pay more — some have welcomed the initiative.

Zambia National Farmers Union president Jervis Zimba says: "We are ready to support an upward tariff adjustment for the imported power as long as this is done in a transparent manner … that it is not equated to a general increase of electricity tariffs. If anything, the measure should be temporary, such that it disappears when local generation improves."

While some relief may be in the offing — Zambia’s meteorological department, for example, is hoping for a return to normal rainfall between now and March — the Sadc report has sounded a longer-term warning.

"Southern Africa remains extremely vulnerable to climate-related disasters, including droughts, cyclones and floods," it says. "The nature and pattern of these disasters [are] increasing in frequency, intensity and magnitude as a result of climate change."


A political impasse

According to the Southern African Development Community’s “Synthesis Report on the State of Food & Nutrition Security & Vulnerability in Southern Africa”, 19% of the rural population of Zambia — 1.7-million people — are expected to require urgent assistance to “reduce food consumption gaps”, and more than 2.3-million people are expected to be in an acute crisis by March.

The situation has prompted the church, NGOs and opposition political parties, among others, to call on the government to declare a national disaster.

“Neighbouring countries have declared food security emergencies. Why hasn’t Zambia?” asks British high commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet. “Declaring an emergency would unlock international humanitarian assistance that donors can’t otherwise provide.”

Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who toured some affected areas, said: “The hunger and water situation in most parts of our country remains critical and a source of great concern ... The story was the same wherever we went: people have no food and no safe and clean drinking water.”

But University of Zambia academic Simon Manda says it’s possible that failings in distribution mean that food is available, but not accessed. “These elements must be carefully constructed and exhaustively assessed before strengthening calls to declare a national crisis,” he says.

It’s an assessment that will sit well with the government, which has so far resisted calls to declare an emergency.

“The key issue that is considered in declaring a national disaster, is the severity of the incident and the affected communities’ capacity to cope, in conjunction with government interventions,” Chanda Kasolo, permanent secretary in the ministry of information & broadcasting services, said in a statement. “Government has the capacity to deal with the situation, without the need to rush to declare a national disaster.”

And while agriculture minister Michael Katambo acknowledges food insecurity in the southern and western provinces, he says it’s not a national crisis because the country is food secure and the government is already distributing food to the affected areas.

It’s a bit of a political hot potato. With a general election set to take place in less than two years, Manda says “declaring a hunger crisis could present political risks for the Patriotic Front government”, as it may lose support from citizens who think it has failed to ensure food security. But, he adds, “the current situation goes beyond mere politics, and denying the existence of a problem does in no way take it away”.