Climate Change and its Challenges for Zimbabwe

There is little doubt in my mind that climate change is a reality and that in addition, southern Africa is going to be one of the hardest hit regions of the world. The science behind these projections is sound but it is impossible to predict exactly what is actually going to be the effect on the ground over time.

climateThe general consensus is that the drier regions of southern Africa are going to be drier and that more precipitation is going to fall in the regions that are already experiencing higher levels of precipitation.

This is very bad news for a region of the world that already experiences huge mean variations in rainfall from season to season, periodic droughts that can be severe and where water shortages are already a feature of everyday life. The facts are stark: historically the region, overall, has an average mean variation in precipitation of 40 per cent. This can be compared to the grain belt in the mid west of the United States where the mean variation is only 5 per cent.

In addition, it was estimated that by 2015, the Gauteng region of South Africa would have exhausted all its available water sources, including the Highlands Water Scheme in Lesotho and its traditional river systems. Right now this huge metropolis is rationing water and the South Africans are studying the possibilities of extracting water from the Zambezi River at Chobe. In fact, the South Africans have planned such a system for many years, knowing full well that they will face serious water shortages in the 21st Century.

Coupled to this existent scenario, the region has a very large rural population which varies from State to State from a third in South Africa, the most industrialized State in SADC, to half or more in all other States except the Island members. This puts this population at great risk from climate change. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that our average incomes per capita are generally low with only four States out of 14, being categorized as middle income States. The rest are all low income States with several, including Zimbabwe, being categorized as very low income Countries.

In the current year, the combined deficit in food grains (maize, wheat and rice) is estimated to be in the order of 20 million tonnes for the SADC region as a whole. For Zimbabwe the deficit is now at 80 per cent of requirements and grain imports have become a significant drain on local financial resources and on regional logistics.

The countries most affected by the anticipated decline in precipitation are South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Zimbabwe is expected to see the southern Provinces becoming more prone to drought and a belt across the country in the north, from Manicaland to Karoi to experience higher rainfall. In addition it is anticipated that these overall trends will be accompanied by severe weather conditions that might be very disruptive – the floods in India this year, in parts of the United States and the phenomena today of heavy rain in the deserts of the southeast of the USA, are prime examples.

Some scientists are saying that the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone is going to shift northwards by 18 degrees. If you have been watching the rainfall patterns this year in the tropics you would have witnessed heavy rains far to the north in the Sahara Desert. This is the main system that brings summer rains to Central Africa including the Congo, Zambia, northern Namibia and Zimbabwe.

What does all this mean for us?

First it means we have to learn to work together and to work more effectively within the SADC family. No country, no matter how endowed can deal with these issues by themselves. Climate Change is an accelerator. It makes our present problems worse in every respect.

In respect to our periodic needs for a massive import programme of food grains and some forms of protein foods such as soybean, we must establish a system for regional forecasting of demand and supply and estimated import demand. Then such a group should examine some form of coordinated procurement and logistics to get the stuff from surplus regions of the World to deficit areas in the SADC region. Strategies for locating and developing grain bulk handling capacity at targeted Ports are critical or we will face periodic food crisis situations that might prove to be very difficult to deal with.

Secondly we must begin to discuss water management on a regional basis with much more urgency than in the past. You can see from the Kariba experience last year when Zambia used far more water than it was entitled to in generating power for their country. This nearly resulted in Kariba power stations being closed altogether. With power from Kariba costing a small fraction of alternative power sources, the temptation to overuse the dam is very great. When Zimbabwe completes the extensions on its side of the river, we will be able to generate 2000 megawatts from Kariba – well above the sustainable yield of the river which is estimated at 1200 megawatts.

The South African plans to draw water from the Zambezi system at Chobe is in a similar category of water usage to that which involved the plans for Botswana to draw water for irrigation which was rejected by Zimbabwe on the grounds that the water in the Chobe was Zambezi water and therefore was subject to regional riparian rights.

Thirdly we are going to have to learn how to use water more productively and intelligently. Semi arid States such as Israel have paved the way for us and have developed technologies that make the best use of water in both urban and farm environments. We must ensure that these technologies are subjected to adaptation research and are then conveyed to our farming Communities.

Fourthly we must recognise that urban communities are the best way to manage scarce water resources. Both Namibia and Botswana have capital Cities that are examples of how to manage urban water systems associated with recycling. 70 per cent of the raw water delivered to our urban purification and distribution systems is subsequently dumped into polluted river systems as waste water. The great majority of this water is recoverable and can be treated for blending and recycling.

Cities generate the great majority of economic output in the world – perhaps over 90 per cent in many countries, it is also the most efficient way to accommodate our growing populations and meeting basic economic needs. Therefore, urban management strategies and smart working cities are the gateway to the future. We must pay much more attention to these matters if we are going to be able to manage our future in a changing world.

Finally we must recognise that African agricultural systems have to change. Just 100 companies in South Africa produce 70 per cent of all farm produce. Peasant or subsistence agriculture simply cannot cope with the contingencies of modern farming and climate change. They cannot adapt fast enough, they do not have the resources for adaptation and mitigation and are already net food deficit systems throughout the region. The other problem is that communal land ownership systems that prevail in most African States, means that there is little or no management of the land and other resources and with climate change; many of these areas will experience desertification – a process that is almost impossible to reverse.

We must recognise that we are not just victims of climate changes brought about largely by the major industrialized States, we are also contributors. A glance at the global satellite images of the region will quickly establish that wild fires in Central Africa are a major polluter. Every year we burn millions of hectares of grassland and forest. Our winter sunsets are legendary but they also point to the vast quantities of carbon dioxide and smoke that we put into the atmosphere over Africa. In the process we damage the environment, destroy our forests and expand our deserts – the Kalahari Desert is growing at 5 kilometers a year.

When we do that we destroy ground coverage, reduce the effective use of what rainfall does occur and increase ground and atmospheric temperatures. We simply have no choice but to get to grips with this situation as expanding deserts, air pollution and poverty know no boundaries.

I am personally very disappointed by SADC. As a regional grouping it must be one of the most ineffective organisations in the world. When SADC Heads of State met in Swaziland last week, it was hardly news. When last did we hear of the regional body taking up an issue with a regional State on the basis of principle? It is time we took regional cooperation and collaboration seriously, paid for it ourselves with less reliance on international donors and staff and put the organisation to work on the many problems which face us as a region. Climate change included, with our own programme to match that being implemented by the international community and endorsed by the USA and China this week at the G20 summit.

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