Weathering the drought: A glimpse into the struggles of Bulilima farmers

Sithembiso Dube, an elderly farmer in Bulilima, Matabeleland South, is one of the many concerned farmers grappling with the harsh realities of the ongoing El Niño drought, bracing for potentially meagre harvests and a looming threat of acute food shortages.

El Nino, a natural climate phenomenon in which surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific become unusually warm, causing changes in global weather patterns, is expected to have an impact on crop yields and production during the 2023/24 farming season in Zimbabwe.

According to the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the government, donors and humanitarian bodies must prepare for high food assistance needs in Zimbabwe including other countries in the southern region of Africa as the drought effects are expected to stretch to 2025.

Dube, in an interview with CITE, said that farmers in Bulilima, are worried about their harvests and food security and as a result, they are adapting to climate change in terms of farming activities. 

She stated that locals in Bulilima have received assistance from both the government and non-governmental organisations in terms of raising awareness and providing information on which crops to grow and how to grow them to achieve adequate yields.

Dube, who is caring for her children and several grandchildren, says she had to adapt quickly by growing drought-resistant crops to feed her family.

“Our area is usually dry. We receive less rainfall than other areas, even when there is good rain. So, when we plough, this affects our harvest. We have since received teachings through the Intwasa initiative. We have been taught about digging deeper holes when planting,” she said.

“This year it’s very hard because our dams are empty and our wells are drying up. We have to share the little water available with our livestock.

“We have HOCIC helping us to adapt. Before them we also had ORAP. These organisations have come in handy in teaching us how to adapt to climate change. We have been taught about which crops we must grow. We are now planting wheat, millet, beans, and groundnuts among other drought-resistant crops.”

Dube added that they have been encouraged to raise awareness in their communities about the dangers of deforestation and to start household orchards to supplement food and prevent soil erosion. 

Hope For A Child In Christ (HOCIC), Climate Adaptation for Rural Livelihoods District Project Coordinator, Micheal Mhlanga, explained that climate change has always had a significant impact on farmers in Bulilima, with 2023 looking to be one of the worst years yet. 

Rising temperatures, irregular rainfall patterns, and increasing droughts in the district, he claims, have significantly altered the agricultural landscape, posing a variety of challenges to farmers in the region.

“In terms of crops, the changing climate has disrupted traditional planting seasons shifting from the traditional first and second week of November to probably January 2024 this time around which indicates a high probability of reduced overall crop yields. The erratic rainfall patterns that have historically characterised the district continue to result in extended dry spells, impacting the growth and productivity of staple crops such as maize and sorghum,” Mhlanga said.

“We have also noted that climate change has impacted the water levels in dams, affecting both irrigation and domestic water supply. Lower water levels have reduced the availability of water for irrigation purposes, further decreasing crop production. Farmers, now more than ever, need to adopt water-efficient irrigation methods such as drip irrigation and explore alternative water sources to cope with this challenge, which is ordinarily expensive for them.”

Mhlanga said HOCIC is currently implementing a 36-month Climate Adaptation for Rural Livelihoods Project in Bulilima, where a gendered nexus of natural resources, food and nutrition security and climate knowledge approach is being employed. 

“We are intensifying dissemination of weather information to farmers as early warnings. Working with MSD and Agritex officers, three-day weather forecasts are shared via WhatsApp and text messages to inform farmers and help them better anticipate and prepare for the existing climatic shocks,” he said.

“Additionally, we are providing hybrid seeds of small grains (sorghum, millet, cowpeas and ground nuts) basal and top dressing fertiliser as well vermicompost to 140 lead farmers and 1400 learner farmers as a way of facilitating the adoption of traditional grains which are drought resistant. 

“Using the Farmer Field School approach which has demo plots, Agritex and HOCIC are capacitating lead farmers with technical skills of Climate Smart Agriculture such as Intwasa, adoption of live and dry mulching using cowpeas as water retention strategy and application of anthill soils as soil reconstruction strategy. The lead farmers in turn facilitate peer education of their learner farmers which efficiently cascades the skill to more farmers.”

HOCIC commended the response from farmers, noting that they are showing enthusiasm in learning new ways of doing things and are adapting well.

“Many farmers have embraced sustainable farming practices like conservation tillage and agroforestry, which help in building resilient agricultural systems,” Mhlanga said. 

“There has been an increase in the uptake of climate-smart technologies and innovations, indicating the proactive approach that farmers have taken in addressing the challenges posed by climate change. Overall, the farmers’ response has been encouraging and highlights their commitment to adapting to the changing climate.”

Matabeleland South Agritex officer, Mkhunjulelwa Ndlovu, said as a ministry, they have taught farmers the importance of crop production whether using irrigation or on dry land through climateproof farming. 

“We encourage them to grow such crops as sorghum, millet, peas, sunflower and specific varieties of groundnuts among others. We are worried about the season length of our crops, of the dry season and the amount of rain that we receive,” Ndlovu said.

“We also encourage them to have Jojo tanks that they can use to harvest rainwater. On occasion that we receive rain, they can store that water and use it to augment the ground moisture. For those who use irrigation, they can still plant maize but we encourage them to grow specific types of maize that mature early. If they follow this well they will have a good yield.”

Ndlovu said the farmers’ adaptation has been good and they effectively use their experience with various crop varieties to grow the right type of crops. 

“In all this, farmers themselves are the chief researchers because they are the ones who grow the crops and they know how they (crops) react to different weather conditions. They know how to grow them. What we are doing as a government is to encourage them to add value to their products. Some are now packaging their products well to make them more attractive, some are now processing their products so that they can sell for better prices.”

According to a climate change expert, Dr Keith Phiri, El Nino may have adverse effects on people’s livelihoods and food security if mitigation factors are not firmly employed.

“Dietary needs of people will be affected, late planting is likely to affect yields, household conflicts may rise as food and water run out and there might be human-wildlife conflicts as the two compete for water. In as much as the messaging about climate change is clear, actions to mitigate it are not, both at national and household level,” Dr Phiri said. 

“There is a need to improve water harvesting capacity, we need to desilt dams and build some more. We might have cyclones as well. It’s better to have water even if harvests are poor. We need food for community asset programs that aim to improve water harvesting capacity. 

“The prediction at the moment is that rainfall will be below normal. Some crops might survive although the yield will be poor, small grains in particular. Farmers are therefore encouraged to stop grain crops. It’s time to adapt before the situation worsens as this will trigger price increases on those crops.”

The latest FEWS NET report notes that due to El Nino, an estimated 20 million people will need food assistance during the January-to-March 2024 peak of the lean season in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe included.

“Overall, it is estimated that over 20 million people will need food assistance during the January-to-March 2024 peak of the lean season. Furthermore, the expected below-average 2024 harvests will be exhausted earlier than usual, leading to comparably high food assistance needs at the start of the following lean season in late 2024 and signalling even higher needs when the lean season peaks in early 2025.”

The report further states that due to the drought, there will be a limited need for labour in the fields and this will have an economic effect on the affected areas.

“An erratic start to the 2023/24 rainy season is expected to result in below-normal labour opportunities for land preparation and planting, with a similar trend likely to occur in early to mid-2024 during the anticipated below-average 2024 harvest. 

“Most poor households typically rely on income from casual labour and petty trade, but increased competition and lower-than-normal liquidity among middle and better-off households will likely limit households’ earnings. To compensate, poor households are expected to continue to pursue or expand other income-earning opportunities.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button