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On the brink of starvation

Garikai Chaunza, Manicaland Province, ZimbabweMarch 23, 2016

Erratic rainfall and long dry spells have contributed to large-scale crop failure and livestock deaths across Zimbabwe. As a result, nearly 3 million rural Zimbabweans are currently facing food insecurity.

A Zimbabwean subsistence farmer holds a stunted maize cob in his field outside Harare (Photo: Reuters/P. Bulawayo)
Image: Reuters/P. Bulawayo

In Zimbabwe's ongoing drought, the constituency of Chipinge South in Manicaland Province is one of the worst-affected areas. There, only hardy domestic animals like goats have been able to survive the drought that has hit the southern African country.

The devastating El Nino event - combined with climate change - has disrupted rainfall patterns and shortened by almost half the rainy season, which normally starts in October and ends in April.

According to government records, as of February 24, people across the country have lost 19,300 herds of cattle to drought.

Cattle are dying

Chipinge resident Gilbert Sithole says he lost 23 herds of cattle in five months due to the lack of water.

"Cattle are dying here," said Gilbert. People from other areas who still have viable grazing pastures have been coming to buy the cows for as low as $10 or $20. "We are forced to give them at such prices - because if we decide otherwise, the cattle are still dying."

Weak and dead cattle in Zimbabwe's Masvingon Province (Photo: Garikai Chaunza)
Cattle in Zimbabwe are dying because drought has prevented the growth of forageImage: Privilege Musvanhiri

The situation has become so dire that a number of children have dropped out of school.

Tatsunga Mazivokufa told DW that he has withdrawn his two children from school because of the disastrous famine, as they were fainting in class after having left home for school on empty stomachs.

"In past years during this time, we would be drying maize, which we would be taking for grinding into maize meal," 35-year-old said. "This changed just this year: people are starving and children are collapsing at school."

People close to starvation

Another villager, Philip Mungazi, said they were now surviving on wild fruits - and pled to donors for food aid.

"We are starving here," said hungry-looking Mungazi. Yet he expressed fears over politicization of donated food by traditional leaders, who in the past have distributed it along political party lines.

"We are appealing to the authorities to make sure that if food handouts come, everyone benefits," Mungazi added.

Villagers in Zimbabwe's Masvingon Province receiving food aid (Photo: Garikai Chaunza)
Masvingon locals are calling for equitable distribution of food aidImage: Privilege Musvanhiri

Empty reservoirs and wells

The shorter-than-usual rainy season experienced by Zimbabwe this year has failed to fill the country's 11,000 major reservoirs, which are the country's main sources of irrigation and drinking water.

These dams are about half full at a time when they are supposed to be spilling over.

In rural areas, wells are drying up, with water tables being depleted by the day.

Calls for action

To conserve water, Zimbabwe's Environment, Water and Climate Change Minister Oppha Muchinguri- Kashiri recently directed village heads to form water-rationing committees in rural areas, which could monitor borehole water usage.

"I wish to call upon our village water point committees, our village pump mechanics and district water technicians to rise to the occasion so that pump breakdowns are kept to the barest minimum," minister Muchinguri stated.

Wilting maize crops in Zimbabwe's Masvingon Province (Photo: Garikai Chaunza)
Corn crops are wilting due to the lack of water for irrigationImage: Garikai Chaunza

In February, President Robert Mugabe declared a state of emergency to encourage the international community to provide food assistance.

But even before that, some western governments - including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Union - were working with local non-governmental organizations already on the ground, providing food aid to the communities.

Leveraging EU aid

European Union ambassador to Zimbabwe, Philippe Van Damme, told DW that the bloc had secured additional funding to augment food assistance currently being giving to Zimbabwe.

Van Damme confirmed that to start, the bloc will probably get another $4.5 million for Zimbabwe.

A quick assessment being organized by ZimVac should provide more precise figures - "which will allow not only the EU, but other international partners to be able to go to back to their capitols and find out what additional support can be mobilized," said envoy Van Damme.

History of food insecurity

Although the present farming season's drought is the worst ever, Zimbabwe has been failing to properly feed its people for the past 15 years.

Once the breadbasket of the southern African region, Zimbabwe turned into a "basket case" in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe's administration embarked on a controversial land redistribution program that drove the former white farmers off their land, without compensation.

The black indigenous farmers who replaced the former commercial white farmers had neither the capital nor the knowledge of modern farming methods to succeed.

In addition to this, the new farmers lacked title deeds to the land they occupied, and were unable to access bank loans.

President Mugabe had defended the land seizures - which were condemned worldwide - saying they were intended to redress colonial land imbalances.