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Despair as ‘worst’ drought stalks Masvingo, Matabeleland farmers

On New Year’s Eve, Regai Mutunhu paced up and down her maize field aimlessly in the scorching heat, looking up to the skies, hoping for a miracle.

By Tatenda Chitagu

Mutunhu has been praying that the rains may fall in the next few days to save her knee-level crop that has succumbed to the prolonged dry spell.

wilting-maize

The euphoria that characterised the coming in of 2016 could not lift her spirits.

“Not this year again,” she said, her face betraying the fear and uncertainty deep down in the mother of three, hailing from Masvingo south communal lands.

“It has been almost 10 years since we last had a bumper harvest,” she said.

“Last year, it was a mixed bag — some got a little from the fields which did not last them to the next farming season, while others like me literally got nothing.

“This time around, we thought our fortunes would change for the better, but with the look of things, it seems we are again headed for disaster because of the erratic rains we have received so far.”

She said they had to contend with having a basic meal once or twice a day because of the food shortages spawned by a ravaging drought in the last farming season.

Regai is not the only communal farmer in such a precarious predicament as hundreds others are staring starvation in the face.

The prolonged dry spell that has hit Masvingo province for the past weeks has led to moisture stress, resulting in most crops wilting.

Most affected areas are Gutu, Chivi, Bikita, Zaka, Chiredzi and Mwenezi.

In Chivi, an arid district which hardly receives good harvests, Grace Murombeni said she had almost given up on rain-fed agriculture as it has failed since time immemorial.

“I had planted well just like others after struggling to raise money to buy maize seed,” she said.

“The germination was not so good and I do not have money to buy another seed. I see that as a waste of money since the crops are almost wilting.”

Department of Agriculture and Rural extension (Arex) provincial agronomist, Sabina Chaduka could not be reached to provide an update on the state of affairs with regards to crops in the province.

Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation deputy minister, Davies Marapira could also not be reached for a comment as his mobile phone was switched off.

However, an Arex official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press, said if the rains did not fall in the next week, most crops would be a write-off.

“The situation is not very pleasing. Most crops are experiencing moisture stress and have wilted, although they are not yet a write-off. But if the situation persists for a week, we will be doomed,” he said.

Chief Mudavanhu Mugabe said the situation in his area would be precarious if the rains did not fall soon.

“The crops have not yet wilted as such, but they are succumbing slowly to moisture stress and the rains are needed like yesterday,” he said.

Chief Mawere of Gutu said the crop situation in his area was dire.

“We need the rains soon if we are to have any hopes of a better harvest. Hunger is stalking us again,” he said.

Last year in Save Valley, Chiredzi, villagers said they were surviving on baobab porridge.

Acute food shortages in the province also saw the Tshangani communities in Masvingo Province suspending their annual mass circumcision rites last year. The ceremony is usually performed in winter.

The World Food Programme (WFP) recently announced that about 1, 5 million Zimbabweans needed urgent food aid due to the famine.

In Chiredzi, WFP gave 22 885 families food rations up to December and said it would increase the number in January to March this year, which is the highest food deficit period.

Masvingo province is susceptible to drought and many communal farmers have been facing food shortages for the past decade, making them perennial candidates for food hand-outs.

The drought has been blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon, which results in high temperatures and low rainfall in most parts of Africa.

Zimbabwe is likely to receive below normal rainfall but Masvingo, Matabeleland and Midlands are likely to be the hardest hit.
According to a weather forecast issued by the Meteorological Services Department of Zimbabwe yesterday, the ongoing dry spell is set to stretch beyond mid-January.

Former Education minister David Coltart last week used social media to urge government to put in place measures to mitigate against the potentially devastating drought.

“Since posting yesterday on the drought situation in Matabeleland, I have driven from Bulawayo to Harare, a route which used to be the agricultural heartland of Zimbabwe,” Coltart wrote on Facebook.

“I now feel that the situation is even more desperate than when I wrote yesterday because there are hardly any crops planted along this entire route. In other words, my fears that this is a problem which extends beyond Matabeleland have been realised.”

The MDC secretary for legal affairs expressed disappointment over the death of commercial agriculture, saying it would compound the effects of the drought.

“Even farms which a few years ago had crops are now lying fallow,” he added.

“The huge irrigation farms between Norton and Harare have mere scatterings of crops; the maize crops — at the end of December — which have been planted are generally pathetic.

“Most were no more than six inches tall, which equates to drastically reduced yields.

“Agricultural experts teach that maize crops need to be planted by the 25th of November to obtain optimal yields — it is clear that even where there are crops they have been planted well after this date.”

He said most farms seized under President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme were not being utilised.

“What profoundly shocked me is that many of the farms which have been taken over by Zanu PF chefs, and which up until recently were still being farmed, are also now lying fallow,” Coltart said.

“This would appear to indicate that even those who are well-connected have either run out of money or ideas. This is a national crisis of unprecedented proportions.”

Last week, millers said the country only had 240 000 tonnes of maize left for both human and animal consumption.

Zimbabwe needs about 1,8 million tonnes of maize every year and the collapse of the agriculture sector has seen the country relying more on imports.

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