Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Heavy Rains a Disaster for Farming

Government mismanagement of the farming sector blamed for compounding problems caused by massive flooding.
By Mike Nyoni

Zimbabwe’s farmers had an auspicious start to the New Year, with heavy rains which began in earnest on December 3. But analysts warn that the country might nevertheless experience its worst food crisis yet, because of widespread flooding which has revealed that the authorities were poorly-prepared and had no back-up plan.

While there were early warnings that Zimbabwe would see above-normal rainfall levels over the 2007-08 season, the government failed to advise farmers when they should start planting.

Farmers were in a quandary over when they should start planting in earnest, because in the past, October rains have been followed by a dry interval in November and December, wiping out the young crops. People have then been forced to replant from inadequate seed resources, and in drought years when the rainy season has ended prematurely around March, the crops have been a write-off.

Insufficient supplies of seed for the staple cereal, maize, and shortages of fertilisers are a persistent problem, caused by the critical lack of foreign currency in the economy over recent years.

This time round, there are widespread fears that the incessant rains pounding the country could lead to crop failure, due to waterlogging and the lack of sun.

In what some observers see as an early sign of climate change in Zimbabwe, the month of December was described as the wettest since records were first kept 127 years ago. The rains have led to massive flooding in most countries in southern Africa, resulting in loss of life, livestock depletion and crop destruction.

“In agriculture, we say rain makes grain, [yet] in Zimbabwe this year at least we must say rain makes starvation,” said Renson Gasela, a former general manager of the state monopoly Grain Marketing Board, and now secretary for land and agriculture in one of two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

In the case of Zimbabwe, analysts say, the situation will be made worse by the lack of forward planning. For example, when the authorities began distributing tractors, harrows and ploughs to newly-resettled farmers in October under the Agricultural Mechanisation Programme, it was already too late - the equipment was never going to reach the majority of beneficiaries in time for planting. Thus, when the rains began in early December, even those who had received free seed and fertiliser from the government had not done their planting.

Moreover, the seed available fell far short of the projected need. The government had set a target of two million hectares under maize, which works out at 50,000 tons of seed. However, only 30,000 tons were available at the start of the rainy season, with the shortfall expected to be met through imports from China.

“Limited quantities of seed were only available [at the] beginning of December,” said Gasela. “This was obviously too late for the planting season. What this means, therefore, is that there was not enough seed for the targeted two million hectares. Most of the seed went to the soldiers for Maguta.”

Maguta is a programme launched by the government three years ago to involve military manpower in agriculture, in a desperate effort to boost food production.

Gasela said that as of the end of December, less than 730,000 of the target two million hectares had been planted.

“The incessant rains have prevented any further planting,” he said. “The planted crops are waterlogged, are suffering from nitrogen deficiency and are in need of sunshine. There is an acute shortage of top dressing fertilisers. GMB [Grain Marketing Board] has none. The shops have none. The country has none.”

President Robert Mugabe’s government appears to be in denial about the scale of the shortfall in agricultural inputs. In response to the heavy rains this week, the Department of Agricultural Extension Services advised farmers to “increase fertiliser application on their crops to counter increased leaching and waterlogging”. It did not explain where the farmers should source the extra fertiliser.

Major fertiliser producers such as the Zimbabwe Fertiliser Company, Zimbabwe Phosphate Industries and Windmill have drastically scaled back production, citing the high cost of raw materials and a lack of the foreign currency needed to buy them. They have also accused government of setting sale prices too low for them to be able to run at a profit.

Zimbabwe has experienced serious food shortages since the government embarked on a land reform programme in 2000 which displaced white commercial farmers and settled many senior ZANU-PF, army and police officials on formerly productive lands.

Mugabe has often blamed food shortages on droughts, an excuse which will be hard to sell this year.

Donors are likely to face renewed requests for food aid for hungry Zimbabweans in the coming months.

“There will be massive shortages of food,” said Gasela. “With what reasons do you approach donors after such a good rainfall season? When there is no rain, Zimbabweans starve; when there are good rains, Zimbabweans still starve.”

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of a journalist in Harare.


More IWPR's Global Voices