By Willem Colenbrander- Kulima Integrated Development Solutions
May 21, 2024

 The southern African nation of Zambia has had to spend the past year firefighting disasters. In October-November 2023, record rainfalls triggered a historic Cholera outbreak which claimed more than 400 lives as it infected over 10,000 people. (More on that in this blog). Two months later, mid-January onwards, the long running El Niño over the Indian Ocean triggered a dry spell, which hit 84 of the country’s 116 districts, destroying the staple maize crop planted over 1 million hectares (out of a total of 2.2. million hectares), and creating a 430-megawatt electricity deficit (as hydropower dams dried up). In a country of 20 million people, as many as a million households are struggling with crop failures, food shortage, and loss of income and livelihoods. On February 29, President Hakainde Hichilema declared a national disaster and drought emergency.

Maize crops wilted due to drought
Maize plants wilted due to drought (Image courtesy: Shutterstock)

Discussions around droughts inevitably bring up climate change as a key driver, and that is not without substance. In fact, a recent study has identified Climate Change as a major factor in formation of El Niño. However, the level of resilience of communities and food systems to droughts has to do with choices humans make.

I have lived in Zambia for 49 years as a natural resources management specialist. If a drought like the ongoing one had hit the nation 50 years ago, the humanitarian cost would have been far less. A key component of that resilience would have been the greater diversity of crops grown back then, including a variety of drought-resistant ones like sorghum and millet.

Since the 1960s, like elsewhere in Africa and across the world, there has been a systematic promotion of ‘Green Revolution’-style agriculture, emphasizing on intensification of production through extensive use of fertilizers, pesticides, and high-yielding seeds varieties. Under this paradigm, crop diversification makes way for monocultures. Across southern Africa (and indeed much of the rest of the continent) maize was promoted as ‘the’ staple crop and sorghum, millets, cassava, and others lost ground.

So far, it is but a small group of farmers, researchers, analysts, and NGOs actively drawing attention to the limitations of Green Revolution agriculture, and to alternatives. On the other hand, maize-centric research and extension is promoted by agribusinesses, universities, and the government through its extension network.

They say that a crisis is also an opportunity. The Office of the Vice President has put out long-term and short-term drought response plans, outlining broad measures the government would be taking in the areas of immediate relief, education, energy, health, nutrition, early recovery, and resilience building. It has invited discussions around finer details and possible modalities of this measures, and herein lies the opportunity to make a push for alternative farming methods with lower ecological impact and higher resilience to shocks such as droughts.

A consultation was organized by FoSTA-Health partner Agriculture Consultative Forum- Zambia, on 27th March 2024. Participants included various stakeholders of Zambian agriculture— Zambia National Farmers Union, academia, agribusinesses, government agencies, and NGOs—including FoSTA -Health partners Kulima Integrated Development Solutions. Discussions placed special emphasis on short- and long-term measures to make the agricultural system more resilient to climate change extremes to deliver nutrition security in Zambia. Key points included:

  • Crop diversification—away from maize and closer to drought-resistant options—will be key to building medium and long-term food security and resilience to shocks
  • While there is nominal acknowledgement of agroecology-adjacent methodologies such as Climate-Smart Agriculture and Conservation Farming, much more needs to be done to pro-actively promote it through the government agricultural extension system.
  • Climate-smart agriculture is often introduced, trialled, and promoted through projects of limited duration. For there to be significant uptake, such projects need to run for at least 5-10 years.
  • In line with agro-ecological principles, there is great need to boost the usage of organic fertilizers. There is also much scope and opportunity to achieve this in Zambia, as the low population density puts relatively less pressure on potential sources of organic matter (such as forests and common land)
  • Irrigation during the dry season should be facilitated. An effective way to do that would be the government subsidizing the fees farmers have to pay to WARMA (Water Resources Management Authority).

However, this should take into account the low (and decreasing) levels of annual rainfall, groundwater, and surface water sources in southern parts of the country. In such areas, if not well-targeted and managed, subsidies could add to the strain on water resources.

  • Those suffering the most economically (around 10% of the population) are being provided cash transfers as relief. In the areas hit hardest by the drought, this relief amount should be increased and extended to a larger number of people.
  • Greater emphasis should be placed on planning and preparation for extreme events such as dry spells and heavy rainfall. To this end, greater use should be made of seasonal meteorological forecasts. Forecasts of the ongoing El Nino and the resultant dry spell were available and widely known much in advance, and much more could have been done in preparation.

The last point is also a lesson for us at FoSTA-Health. Going ahead, as we periodically monitor our progress and do forward planning, we too will take into consideration seasonal forecasts and adapt our work plan accordingly.

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