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August 12, 2008

Zimbabwe faces poor wheat harvest as power cuts affect irrigation

Political violence, routine power cuts and fertiliser shortages are all but putting paid to any chance of Zimbabwe harvesting a winter wheat crop that will ease its chronic food shortages.

Once the bread basket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe has become dependent on donor food in a few years. A recent UN report estimates that by early 2009 more than 5 million of Zimbabwe's estimated 12 million people will require food assistance, with the winter wheat harvest unlikely to make any significant difference.

One of the few remaining white farmers in the prime Nyamandlovu farming area, in Matabeleland North Province, said anonymously, "The crop that I planted was severely damaged after war veterans ordered my workers off the land as they campaigned for President Mugabe in the June presidential elections, and the little that survived is still facing many challenges, which include persistent power cuts and shortages of fertiliser." The farmer, who planted 60 hectares of wheat and 10 hectares of barley, said outside events disrupted agricultural planning in the period leading up to the second round of presidential voting on 27 June.

"Power cuts are becoming frequent ... on most days we get electricity during the night and it is impossible to do any meaningful irrigation at that time," he said. "Most of the wheat and maize I planted has died off, and I will realise far less than what I was supposed to get if electricity was supplied continuously, " the farmer said.

"Close to half of the wheat I planted is damaged and the one [field] I am tending now is of poor quality due to the water shortage," he said. "If I had not had any interruptions on the farm I would have put over 100 hectares under irrigation, but the country's politics is affecting current production."
It is a tale repeated across some of the country's prime agricultural areas. The white farmer's neighbour, a beneficiary of Mugabe's land redistribution, said that his attempt to farm winter wheat has been a disaster.
"This is my first winter wheat crop, but most of it has been destroyed because I have not been able to draw enough water to irrigate the crop, and the power outages have been frequent. Close to half of the wheat I planted is damaged and the one [field] I am tending now is of poor quality due to the water shortage." he said. "If I had not got any interruptions on the farm I would have put over 100 hectares under irrigation, but the country's politics is affecting current production."

The new farmer planted 40 hectares of wheat, but said he would be lucky to harvest more than five metric tonnes; in future he would not plant crops that required irrigation and would rely on seasonal rainfall if he grew any crops during winter. "The crop was damaged at an early stage, as we used to have power for about three days a week, but now electricity supplies are being cut almost daily and this is disturbing irrigation cycles ... most of the wheat is now facing problems," he said.

The government estimates that about 8,900 hectares of winter wheat was planted, or 13 percent of the area required to produce the more than 400,000 metric tonnes the country needs to meet its annual requirement.

Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo was reported as saying, "The projected wheat winter crop is not good, but we have learnt a lesson and already we are now preparing for the summer crop. We are making sure that seed companies are getting seed and fertiliser ready for the season, and already we have imported 30,000 tonnes of seed for the 2008/09 season. The country needs 50,000 tonnes [of seed] for planting two million hectares of maize and the rest will be supplied by local manufacturers, " he said.

Renson Gasela, former chief executive officer of the state controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB), said Zimbabwe would probably produce about a fifth of its consumption needs. "The country requires 400,000 tonnes of wheat per annum but this year we will hardly get 80,000 tonnes, and the reasons are several: power shortages, and a serious shortage of Compound D fertiliser, which was nowhere to be seen in the country, and as a result many farmers reduced the amount of land they planted," he said.

"We will get the smallest crop of wheat that has been produced in this country this year, and the only solution to the current farming crisis is to have a political settlement that will address the current problems ... anything else is just a stopgap measure," Gasela said.


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