This time last year large swathes of land in Zimbabwe was covered in flood waters. A torrent of rain had destroyed homes, schools, clinics, roads and killed more than a 100 people. With it, came disease and pests that ravaged the staple maize crop, but not enough to prevent a good national harvest.
Today, the ground thirsts, as rainfall remains erratic.
Scientists at the Meteorological Services Department have predicted rains will this summer come late, meaning more rain ought to be expected between now and March. And when rain comes, it will be “normal to above normal”, with extended mid-season dry spells – those periods of about a fortnight without rain in a rainy season.
Much of the rains are to fall in the Mashonaland and Manicaland provinces, while the southern regions of Zimbabwe will likely be drier, an irony that were it not for its seriousness would be funny. Villagers in the south, like Tsholotsho, struggled to keep waters out of their homes last summer because of too much rain.
The 2017/18 farming season will not be a disaster – and supposing it were, the GMB should have stocked enough grain from last year’s surplus to last until the next harvest in April – but the rapid changes in rainfall patterns season after season may signal the impact that climate change is having in Zimbabwe.
We will not get carried away ascribing every little weather and climate calamity to climate change.
That would be stretching science too far.
There’s little doubt, however, that these days everything is almost always a disaster. And this season, we might not really know what to expect anymore, based on current trends. Normal rain? Below normal? Above normal? Drought or half-drought? Make your pick.
Erosion is a continuing, growing concern, almost becoming permanent here.
More than half the world’s topsoil has been eroded in the past 150 years, say scientists, but the greatest damage in Zimbabwe has revolved around gully formation, and in range-lands due to overgrazing, and often, poor farming techniques.
And sometimes grasslands can look deceptively healthy, yet a closer inspection tends to reveal signs of erosion in between plants.
So far, gullies – dangerously deep and steep gorges caused by violent runoff water over many years – have laid to waste more than 9 500 hectares of land countrywide, according to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA). Another two million hectares are at risk, latest studies from the University of Zimbabwe show.
It’s already been noted in past discourses in this publication how soil lost is water lost; how mould-board ploughing reduces soil organic matter, and thereby exposing it to erosion; and how fertilisers kill the micro-organisms (bacteria, worms, fungi etc.) that help glue the soil particles to prevent erosion.
Reclaiming lost lands
But this data and information don’t matter if nothing is being done to curb damage and reclaim lost lands and rivers.
Thus all activities that affect water, and therefore, those that fuel erosion, must conform to a new ethic – supported by law – that protects water sources such as wetlands from becoming housing quarters.
This will likely mean a strong challenge to local government policies that favour unlimited property development, and to those national laws that have failed to control the chaos.
In Zimbabwe, laws that protect the natural environment aren’t in short supply.
There’s an entire Cabinet portfolio dedicated to managing nature and to creating policy and legislation, supported by several statutory agencies. But despite some progress, the legislation hasn’t been put to effective use.
For example, a law passed in 2007, the Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection Regulations, makes it illegal for anyone to farm on wetlands, or within 30 metres of a river or dam or lake. Offenders pay a maximum fine of $500, it states.
But as farmers look to exploit the rich alluvial soils along rivers, farming in river basins has remained of strategic importance to many, who continue to defy the law, particularly in urban areas where land for agriculture is critically short.
Politicians have, as a matter of fact, encouraged farming in cities and towns, wherever there is land, on wetlands and along stream-banks. Environment Regulator Environmental Management Agency has found it difficult to stop the urban onslaught on wetlands, and on river banks.
It has tried out something, however. EMA says that to prevent soil loss, it has deployed both policy and persuasion.
“An inventory survey of all the rivers affected by stream bank cultivation was done in all the provinces. . . to ascertain which rivers in particular are affected, to what extent and the exact location,” says EMA, in an article on its website.
EMA said that it had begun to engage rural farmers countrywide, “with particular attention on the areas with affected rivers identified in the initial inventory exercise.”
“These community meetings are done together with traditional leaders to raise awareness on sustainable agricultural practices such as the growing of crops at least 30m away from the bank of a river, handling of agro-chemicals to prevent water pollution and fire management,” it said.
After meeting EMA, communities have come up with Local Action Plans to help raise money for the various soil-erosion-busting initiatives in their localities.
One key result from this has been the creation of community nutritional gardens, where they grow mostly vegetables.
As the University of Zimbabwe reported that dams had lost up to 20 percent of their total storage capacity to siltation over decades, Government in 2016 rolled a programme seeking to reverse that damage. The programme aims to remove silt – that fine soil or other material washed away by running water, which ends up at the bottom of the dam, permanently blocked from moving downstream — from over 3,000 small and large dams.
Others have cast their hopes on emerging global laws that can be applied domestically to specifically prevent and reverse environmental damage.
This new go-to law is called Earth jurisprudence, a budding field of law that recognises and respects the rights of nature and the health of all life on earth, said Getrude Pswarayi, an environmentalist, and director at sustainable farming civic organisation PELUM Zimbabwe.
“It (Earth jurisprudence) focuses on sustaining the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that exists in the natural world which ensures the existence of all,” Pswarayi has said in a past interview.
“Earth jurisprudence provides the foundation for restoring a mutually enhancing relationship between humanity and nature. It acknowledges that the good of the whole, the entire Earth community, takes precedence over the good of the individual parts.”
At community level, a good farmer in a tropical setting like Zimbabwe’s would always try to keep every raindrop on the farm. It should go into the soil that it can be used by the plants or recharge the groundwater, which feed springs and streams.
Here, one can think of the great skill at harvesting rain-water employed by the late Zephaniah Phiri at his 8-hectare farm in Zvishavane. Then you also have Fambidzanai Permaculture in Harare that practice and teach small farmers how to grow crops organically, all designed to eliminate fertiliser use and to conserve water.