HARARE – “We are now resorting to a single meal a day. As you can see the skies are barren and we fear the worst,” says Emmanuel Mapfumo as he watches his malnourished grandchildren kicking a plastic ball.
With more than a dozen mouths to feed, Mapfumo, who takes care of his three orphaned grandchildren in addition to his four school-going children, is left with food barely enough to take him for the next two months.
The scorching heat and the clear skies are at variance with Mapfumo’s expectations in a normal October.
“The rain is not about to come as you can see there are no clouds to suggest the onset of the season.
Normally we should have received the first rains by now and most crops should be out of the soil already.
“Just as it has been the case in the last decade or so, we are once again headed for famine,” the 55-year-old communal farmer in Manicaland’s Buhera district told the Daily News on Sunday.
“The government should consider declaring the hunger we are faced with as a national disaster because this year is likely to be a repeat of the 2012-2013 cropping season where harvest was poor.”
Although the government has taken note of the impending food security crisis, efforts at securing grain have been hampered by a critical shortage of funds to import enough grain from neighbouring Zambia.
So dire is the situation that United Nations (UN) aid agencies have fallen short of declaring a famine — a word they use sparingly and specifically.
In September, the Rome-based UN agency World Food Programme warned that some 2,2 million people were in need of urgent food aid.
The UN agency said this was the highest number of Zimbabweans requiring food assistance since early 2009, when more than half the population relied on such aid.
But the matter will not be treated with the urgency it deserves by aid agencies aligned to the UN as the organisation only declares a famine in a country or region when 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages, over 30 percent of the population are acutely malnourished and every day, hunger causes two out of every 10 000 people to die.
While this may be so, it is not difficult to conclude that conditions need to be truly horrific before this definition of famine is met.
Even an acute malnutrition rate of, say, 28 percent would not qualify as a famine according to the UN’s technical definition yet, like in the case of Mapfumo, it would be very much a crisis.
Thus the case of Mapfumo and the millions in the rural areas remain a lone voice in the desert hence his call on government to speedily attend to the potential catastrophe.
“There is need for government to urgently map new ways to help rural farming communities access enough water and produce enough food.
“Irrigation schemes are key infrastructure that could boost agricultural production,” suggested Mapfumo.
While his irrigation proposal sounds a splendid idea, financing of such projects can be an expensive venture especially since Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme, which began in 2000, pushed many banks to withdraw support for agricultural activities.
And with the 99-year leases given to new farmers by government which are not bankable, funds to support their activities will not be easily available — raising the spectre of a Somalia-like famine.
Opposition MDC legislator and shadow agriculture minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo summed up the dire situation in Parliament two weeks ago pointing out that the country had moved from being a net exporter to a perennial food beggar.
“The victims of elite capture have been the ordinary villagers of Kezi and Siyachilaba who have to contend with debilitating food shortages following the dysfunctionality of a hitherto well laid out food market chain,” Nkomo said.
The former minister of Water Resources highlighted the plight of villagers, warning that the rural folk could starve to death unless food relief efforts are intensified immediately.
In Masvingo, a province perennially affected by climatic hazards including floods and drought, villagers in Gutu, Chin’ombe, Zvavahera, Chitsa, Munyikwa and Chin’ai, areas are reportedly the worst hit.
“The food we are left with can hardly take us until Christmas. In some parts of Buhera down in Bocha people are already surviving on wild fruits and insects.
“There are some who can no longer afford two meals a day and are on the verge of starvation,” Mapfumo said expressing pessimism about the prospects of a better season this year.
With the ever-shifting rainfall patterns and climatic conditions that have become so unpredictable, Mapfumo seems to have resigned his family’s survival to fate.
Zimbabwe has suffered intermittent food shortages since 2000 when agricultural output fell after President Robert Mugabe decided to seize white-owned commercial farms to distribute to blacks.
According to the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), land seizures under the programme led to a rapid decline in farming as the new owners had little or no expertise.
Food production plunged in that period, from 2 million tonnes of maize in 2000 to 400 000 in 2010, according to the CFU, which represents mainly white farmers.