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March 26, 2009

Smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe grapple with effects of climate change

Even though climate change issues are difficult for most people to understand, smallholder farmers in Seke rural district about 40km south-east of Zimbabwe's capital Harare say the most persuasive evidence that global warming is happening is the change in the rainfall pattern as well as the frequency of droughts.

"We hear a lot about climate change issues but we don't understand the processes involved," Mr Peter Chamboko (84), a village elder told journalists recently during a tour organised by Environment Africa to discuss climate change issues. "To us as people who are not educated the clearest evidence that climate change is happening is the severity of droughts we have experienced in recent years."

Climate change issues are very complex for most people.

What is it that can convince smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and Africa that global warming is a real and present threat? What should people accept as evidence? And what will they accept in practice?

A trip to Mubobo village, Mandedza ward near Dema Growth Point showed that to smallholder farmers, climate change is intimately linked to land and agriculture. Erratic rainfall, drought, the cutting down of trees and the erosion of plant genetic resources are some of their evidence that climate change is taking place at a faster rate than ever seen in past.

"When I was growing up we used to receive lots of rain here in Seke," said Mrs Mary Guzha (83) who was part of village elders who were present at this village forum. "We ate plenty of wild fruits -- matohwe, tsambatsi, mazhanje, matamba, tsenza and other herbal plants. The rain pattern was predictable -- we had madzura chando (winter rains in June) followed by gukurahundi rains in August, bumharutsva rains in September and the kutemera gwati rains which signalled the start of the new rain season."

She said the rainfall pattern then, was predictable and smallholder farmers knew exactly when to plant their crops.

"But now things have changed. It's now difficult to plan. We don't know when to plant. Timing is now a big headache for us now," she said.

Others said their crop yields have been declining over the years.

"Our crop harvest has fallen significantly and our soils now require more fertilizers which we can't afford. Rains are erratic and I think this has more to do with climate change," said Mrs Rose Chamboko (78).

"When I was a young boy a bad drought hit the country around 1947 or 1948 followed by floods around 1952 or 1953. During that drought life was tough. From the 1960s the frequency of droughts and floods has increased I think," said Mr Chamboko.

Some farmers think climate change is a result of cultural factors.

"In the past our elders conducted traditional ceremonies to ask for rain. We had our own spirit medium who would lead rain ceremonies around September of each year. It could rain and we had bumper harvests. Now it's a different story. There is no longer any communal spirit uniting people for common causes," said Mr James Nyemba, a village head.

"The sacred place we used for the ceremonies is now polluted. The VaPostori sect say they don't believe in this while some elders have died making it hard to revive the ceremonies. All this explains why we are having climate change."

Said Mr Chamboko: "In the past people followed their culture and the frequency of droughts and floods was less compared to now. Although it's difficult to link culture to changing climate, I think our attitudes towards the environment are worsening the situation which impacts negatively on our land and crop yields."

The village elders blamed the rampant cutting down of trees, lack of respect of certain cultural values which enhanced environmental conservation, human greed and the absence of a communal spirit to conserve natural resources.

"In the past people valued indigenous fruit trees and were never allowed to cut them down. Our young people are now greedy, they worship money and they will destroy the environment for dollars," said Mrs Chamboko.

"They are just cutting down everything. Everyday we see truck fully loaded with wood going to town for sale. Where is this leading us to? They don't know that they are killing the earth silent."

Village head Mr Nyemba said the fines for cutting down trees were too little and did not discourage people from this practice.

"As traditional leaders we have no power to deal with such issues. The fines are too little and so we are losing the fight because we are weak to confront people who are profiteering from our resources leading to destruction of the environment," he said.

From the village discussions, it's clear that smallholder farmers are now feeling the pinch of climate change. Issues are coming out at the village level not from high profile summits such as the Bali conference or other Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change meetings.

More people in Zimbabwe and Africa are suffering from the impact of climate change.

It is hitting the poor hardest especially on food security and their main source of livelihood -- agriculture.

Senior Meteorological Services Department official Mr Collin Mutasa said evidence of climate change in Zimbabwe is now there and signals the burden of climate change risks to be felt more by the poor in the near future.

He said the country is now experiencing an unprecedented series of extreme weather events which have serious implications on food security and the economy as a whole.

Climate in Zimbabwe has changed significantly in the past 100 years and some of the key findings by the Met Office indicate that:

  • Annual mean temperature for Zimbabwe has increased by about 0,4 degrees Celsius between 1900 and 2000
  • The country has experienced a rise daily minimum temperatures of around 2,6 degrees Celsius in a century
  • A rise in daily maximum temperature of about 2 degrees Celsius per century
  • Number of cold days is decreasing at the rate of about 14, 17 and 16 days per 100 years -the number of days with minimum temperatures below 12 degrees Celsius have decreased between 1950 and 1990
  • Number of days with maximum temperatures equal to or above 30 degrees Celsius have also increased between 1950 and 1990.

Rainfall data shows no consistent trend indicating that changes in temperature and weather patterns were affecting the frequency and severity of rainfall, droughts, floods, access to water and the use of land.

According to the Met Office, rainfall has declined by about five percent and rainfall events have become more intense while mid-season dry spells have increased.

Extreme events are becoming more intense and of longer duration coupled with periodic shift in onset rains.

Zimbabwe has experienced six warmest years on record since 1987 and an increase in the frequency of droughts since 1990 (90/91, 91/92, 92/93, 93/94, 94/95, 97/98, 01/02, 02/03, 04/05, 06/07) leading to massive drop in crop yields in the country's agricultural sector.

The country is also experiencing an increase in the frequency of floods.

Cyclone-induced flooding included Cyclone Bonita 1996, Eline 2000, Japhet 2003 and another in 2007.

Future climate change projections for Zimbabwe indicate that the country is warming at the rate of 0,15 to 0,55 degrees Celsius per decade. Annual rainfall is projected to decrease across Zimbabwe.

The Met Office reports that the decrease will occur in all seasons, but will be more conclusive for the early and late rains than for the main rainy season months of December to February.

By 2080 annual rainfall will average 5-18 percent below the 1961-1990 average of 634,8mm.

It is also projected that the frequency and duration of dry spells is likely to increase while extreme climate events such as dry conditions, heat waves and heavy precipitation will become more intense and frequent increasing the risk of droughts and floods.

Southern Africa is likely to experience a temperature rise ranging from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius as a result of doubling carbon dioxide emissions in the next century while precipitation is expected to decrease by 10-15 percent in some areas and increase by similar percentage in others.

The Met Office reports that the frequency and duration of dry spells is likely to increase for the entire sub-region.

Other experts say with predictions that agricultural productivity in Zimbabwe could decrease by up to 30 percent because of increases in climate extremes, climate change poses one of the most serious food security challenges in the 21st century for the country.

They say poverty is likely to worsen particularly among rural and peri-urban populations with unprecedented consequences on an already degraded environment.

Mr Mutasa said there is need to encourage smallholder farmers to use climate information in dealing with the threat of climate change.

"Agro-climatic zones are changing probably due to climate change. Farmers need to utilize information from the Met Office to help guide their farming operations," he said.

He said according to findings by B Kayinamura in 2001, the new natural region two is different from the previous classified region and areas such as Chinhoyi, Chibero and their surroundings now have agro-climatic zone conditions similar to those found in natural region three.

Natural region three has shifted slightly upwards and areas in and around Kwekwe were moved to natural region four.

Zimbabwe and other developing countries need to take effective action and improve institutional, regulatory and policy frameworks, support the development of renewable energy technologies as well as invest more in natural resource management to enhance the capacity of the poor to respond and adapt to climate change challenges.

Adaptation to climate change to enhance their resilience must be a development priority in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole.

If this is not done, Zimbabwe, and other countries on the continent considered most at risk, will have highly climate sensitive economic sectors like agriculture, fisheries, livestock and others damaged.

And, this explains why it is important to take climate change debates from the high profile conferences to the village level forums under a tree.


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