‘We are absolutely cursed’: Farmers despair over El Nino warning

Officials, farmers and experts plan for drought after 2015/2016 El Nino left millions hungry and killed 19,000 cattle.

Zimbabwe El Nino
One of the few boreholes in Chimhenga, Zimunya which had water during the 2016 drought [Andrew Mambondiyani/Al Jazeera]

Except for a few cows in the fields, the small-scale farms in Mpudzi Resettlement area, eastern Zimbabwe, are deserted on this hot September afternoon.

From June to early October, farmers wait for the new cropping season, which normally starts in November – when temperatures rise.

Most still depend entirely on rain-fed agriculture and they closely monitor weather forecasts.

But the 2018/2019 rainy season does not look good. 

The government has warned farmers of a possible El Nino-induced drought during the crop-growing season.

Elijah Ngwarati, a small-scale farmer, looks concerned as he considers the prospects of yet another severe drought in less than three years.


“We have been told that we might experience a severe drought this season and we are worried,” Ngwarati, a 42-year-old father of three, told Al Jazeera. “Imagine, it’s hardly three years since another severe drought affected us.”

In an update on September 10, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said there was a 70 percent chance of an El Nino developing by end of this year. 

“Climate change is influencing the traditional dynamics of El Nino and La Nina events as well as their impacts. 2018 started out with a weak La Nina event but its cooling effect was not enough to reduce the overall warming trend which means that this year is on track to be one of the warmest on record,” WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

Food shortage concerns

Washington Zhakata, who heads Zimbabwe’s Climate Change Management Department, told Al Jazeera that once an El Nino sets in, depending on its strength and nature, the chances of low or below normal rainfall are between 50 and 65 percent.

“Usage of irrigation is critical, especially at the beginning of the season and during extended seasonal dry spells, among other strategies to mitigate the impacts of the El Nino,” he said.

The 2015/2016 El Nino drought wiped out crops and left more than four million people without food, killing over 19,000 cattle nationwide.

During the 2016 drought, said Ngwarati, farmers had to travel long distances in search of food. 

Maize, a staple in Zimbabwe, was scarce.

“It was disheartening.  We watched as our crops wilted right before our eyes. And most of the crops were affected when they were already flowering.

“There was no water for our livestock and the only dam around here dried up.  Both people and livestock had to crowd for a drink every day at the few boreholes which had water in the area.”

This time around, he said, the farmers have a plan. 

“We have been advised to start planting with the early rains and the government has given us maize seed … But it’s scary that we don’t even know how much rainfall we are going to receive this coming season. The season doesn’t look good.”

‘We are cursed’

Henry Fusirai Nzarayebani, another farmer in the area, appeared solemn.

“I don’t know what to do,” he repeated. “I’m not prepared for another drought especially when we have not yet recovered from the previous drought”. 

Nzarayebani said the 2015/2016 drought was devastating, leaving many families without food or clean drinking water.

“We had to go for days without eating anything,” he said.

However, he hoped that his small vegetable garden sustained by water from a nearby wetland could produce enough food for the lean months.

“I hope the wetland will not dry up in the event of a drought,” he says. 

Peter Makwanya, a climate change researcher and lecturer at the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU), said small-scale farmers with access to underground water reserves should venture into horticulture, which brings immediate results.

“Horticulture can be done throughout the year,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that training was necessary. “After three months, farmers can realise their harvests.

“Most of these farmers still rely on traditional farming methods so issues of smart farming are not at the heart of their community of practice.”

As for government support, Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri told the state-owned Herald newspaper that officials would speed up the installation of irrigation infrastructure as he encouraged farmers to broaden the range of their crops to include small grains.

But Shiri’s assurance means little to panicked farmers.

“We are absolutely cursed,” said Ngwarati.

A dam in Mpudzi Resettlement area, Zimunya was reduced to a puddle of dirty water during the 2016 drought [Andrew Mambondiyani/Al Jazeera]
A dam in Mpudzi Resettlement area, Zimunya was reduced to a puddle of dirty water during the 2016 drought [Andrew Mambondiyani/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera