The Meteorological Services Department (MSD) is playing scientific tricks on clouds to induce them to give up the rain they hold. The process is called cloud seeding. On January 25, MSD head of forecasting Tich Zinyemba told The Herald Business how “an aircraft had gone airborne moments ago” to cloud seed. But in light of the sustained lack of rain across most parts of Zimbabwe this summer now apparent to have hit the maize staple hard, quite a big chunk of it to the point of no return, could the MSD intervention have come a bit too late?
Deputy Agriculture Minister Davis Mharapira has expressed similar fears, exasperated by the wicked coalition of too little rain and too much heat, combining to wreak havoc on farms. And all this coming hard on the heels of a 2016 /17 season when rain virtually became loathsome.
Mr Mharapira’s coping plan is built around “water harvesting and development of bigger water reservoirs”. But in a rain season without rain, we doubt the Minister’s well-meaning strategy on collecting rainwater for future use will work this farming season, and neither is it short-term in outlook.
At the Meteorological Services Department, Mr Tich Zinyemba spoke of how since last year scientists have been looking to the sky, sending their aeroplanes laden with chemicals to the clouds, shooting the chemicals into the cloud to try and stimulate rain.
The results are there for all to see. Meteorologists worldwide seed clouds, but its impact as an effective rainmaker remains a subject of scientific debate. Perhaps Mukwerera will do?
From Rushinga to Chivi, rain shortages have hit crops hard, particularly maize and tobacco. Farmers in these areas have since written off a tenth of their maize crop, Agriculture Ministry officials say, scorched into pulp by the searing heat in dry weather. The outlook doesn’t look good, but these are only non-scientific projections..
Mr Wonder Chabikwa, who heads the 25 000-farmer body the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union seemed rather dramatic, when last week he drew comparisons with the deadly drought of 1992.
He told this publication that if rain didn’t come sooner, Zimbabwe risked a return to the drought of 25 years ago that killed more than a million cattle, goats and donkeys and left millions of people terribly hungry.
They are an informed guess from a ZCFU president with years of experience in agriculture, a career in which he has come face to face with the bad, the good and the ugly of farming under changing climatic conditions.
Now, even as rain plays up, the prospect of Zimbabweans going hungry this year remains remote. President Mnangagwa told a BBC interview during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week that the country had stocked up 3 million tonnes of maize last summer, when rain was plenty.
Praising Zimbabwe’s new farming model called Command Agriculture, which is designed to boost food production, President Mnangagwa explained how Zimbabweans ate the equivalent of 1,5 million tonnes each year, with 500 000 tonnes locked away in strategic reserves. The remainder, surplus to requirements, can be exported, he suggested.
And there is more good news coming from Sadc experts on climate — that the rain season this year will be a few weeks longer, extending to May.
Traditionally, rain ends around March or April, after six months falling. The peak periods in Zimbabwe are usually December, January and February, but that’s been seen to be shifting in recent decades due to climate change.
A mid-season review by the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF) last December makes the May-end rainfall season prediction, even projecting increased precipitation in the category “normal to above normal rainfall”. This will no doubt cheer up those farmers that planted late, giving hope of an improved harvest, should the SARCOF predictions come to pass.
So, in the event that scientific predictions falter, as they are sometimes prone to, Zimbabweans could still look to that surplus of grain from 2017 spoken of by the President to do the hunger-trick. And that’s based only on the remote assumption that the 2018 harvest turns out to be a complete disaster. Then Mr Chabikwa, the ZCFU head, will have a better story to tell.