The drought of ’92

10 12 2015
Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Zimbabweans have a curious attitude to the rainy season; they almost think it’s a right and are somewhat puzzled or even hurt when I say no, I don’t think the rains are going to come this year. Of course we will get some rain but it’s almost certain there will be a drought.

In 1992 we had a drought. At the time I was working in Penhalonga in the high rainfall eastern area of Zimbabwe. I was doing freelance programming; there was plenty of work but it did not pay well as people were not convinced of the value of it so I left and in 1995 (another drought year) started an agricultural job near Harare.

The photo above was taken north of Mutare in a high rainfall area called Watsomba. I don’t recall the actual date but you can see there is hardly a blade of grass to  be seen. In those days Zimbabwe still had a vibrant agricultural sector and despite the ravages of the drought nobody went hungry because the commercial farmers (mostly white) knew how to use their resources well and besides, drought is endemic to southern Africa so there was plenty of stored water to irrigate crops.

This year a drought is likely but there’s a major difference; there are very few capable farmers left. Most were driven off their land by the Mugabe government in 2000 – 2002. Many of the former commercial farms lie derelict and ironically, the dams (reservoirs) that ensured plentiful crops and established Zimbabwe as a regional food exporter are still mostly full. There are two reasons for this – there are few farmers to use the water and those who can prefer to pump the water for more profitable crops than the staple maize. Pumping is also expensive these days as most of the country is enduring long power cuts so diesel pumps have to be used. One of my customers told me that he gets up at midnight, when the power comes on, to irrigate his tomatoes. “You can get quite a lot of irrigation done in four hours before they turn it off again but the labour force is not very keen” he added.

The electricity situation is only going to get worse. Lake Kariba, which normally supplies most of the country’s hydro power is critically low so the turbines are running below capacity. The lake is low due to poor rains in the catchment area of central west Zambia and eastern Angola and this inflow only occurs around April. The Zambians have also over developed the north bank power station and the lake simply cannot keep up. Zimbabwe also has a large thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but generating capacity is down due to lack of maintenance and capital development (the government is broke) and despite being right on top of a large very high quality coal deposit they just can’t seem to get it together.

Money was borrowed from Namibia to fund electricity development in Zimbabwe but now the local utility, ZESA, has taken out another loan and we have to export more power to Namibia to pay it back.

The internet did not exist in Zimbabwe in 1992 so there was not a lot of opportunity to research the causes of drought. Now the current el Niño is well covered both locally and worldwide. Looking back at the history, this year’s temperature rise that defines the phenomenon looks to be very similar to that of 1992 (1995 was not quite as strong though we were saved in this part of the country by cyclone Bonita that savaged the eastern districts) but perhaps a bit stronger. That’s not good news at all.

I don’t have a photo of the same area taken in 1993 but I do recall that the area recovered very well. That’s cold comfort right now (it’s blazing hot as I write this with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees and few clouds to be seen) as we still have to get through another 12 months before we can hope for a normal season.

In the meantime I am installing a solar powered system capable of running all electrics in the house bar the water heaters (it’s not my house otherwise I’d install solar water heaters too).  I actually am connected to a reasonably reliable grid due to the proximity of a military baracks but I just like the idea of being independent and, yes, I’m a bit of a geek too.





Smoke and fire

7 09 2015
Smoke and sun

Smoke and sun

Sometimes, at this time of year, the sun sets before it gets close to the horizon. This photo was taken up at Nyanga in the eastern highlands two weekends ago. I was up there again this last weekend to take photos of the msasa trees whose colour can be spectacular but there was just too much smoke around and the colours were very muted. And yes, the sun actually “set” before it got to the horizon.

This is the dry season in Zimbabwe and the bush burns. Not just in Zimbabwe but the surrounding countries too are ablaze. This year the winter has been unusually long and unusually dry. Nyanga being on the eastern escarpment overlooking the Mozambique flood plain does often get winter rain. It’s not heavy but the mist and rain, or guti in the vernacular, can last for days. This year it’s been rare and it shows in the dryness of the bush.

There is a strong el Niño forecast for this season and that is not good news for us. Not because it is likely to bring a drought – droughts after all are endemic to southern Africa and we have survived droughts in the past. Now we don’t have the resources to survive a drought because the commercial farms are largely derelict and the dams (reservoirs to others) that should be used to irrigate crops are underutilized. There is of course an irony here. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Kariba, is worryingly low. We share it as a hydro power resource with Zambia and it’s capacity is normally stretched to the limit so when the rains are weak in Zambia which is the main catchment, as they were last season, the lake doesn’t fill. Both countries’ economies are heavily dependent on the lake for their power so now there is already squabbling over what’s left and our already punitive power cuts are getting worse. Not good news for a nation that is already crippled by economic mismanagement.

msasas





Not an insect season

14 04 2015

Stick insects are difficult to photograph. Have you ever tried photographing a stick? They are aptly named.

Not great camouflage

Not great camouflage. The front legs are pointed towards the top left of the photo. The head is about 1/3 down from the top left corner.

This one I rescued off the floor in the dining room one morning. How it had got in I don’t know but Zak would almost certainly squashed it with his nose or a paw so I lifted it up onto a vase of roses and there it stayed for the next three days until Marianne took pity on it and moved it outside.

It has not been a great season for insects. Come to think of it, it has not been a great season for growing crops either. The rains were very late starting last year and early planted maize succumbed to a long dry spell that lasted into the first week of December. Savvy farmers (who could afford it) replanted after the first good rains in December but short-season maize, as it is known, does not yield heavily at the best of times and erratic rains since December have really given the late plantings a hard time. And now to top it all the rains have finished earlier than usual.

Insects of course also flourish in good rainy seasons so I have not seen anything like the variety and numbers this season that I have seen in previous years. I should be seeing a profusion of golden orb spiders in the nursery about now but they have not appeared either. I guess it must be something to do with a low prey population.

Droughts and erratic rainy seasons are nothing new in this part of southern Africa but in the distant past we had strategic reserves to fall back on. And farmers to grow the reserves in the first place. Now much of the once productive commercial farmland lies idle and Zambia produces a surplus of maize, thanks largely to displaced Zimbabwean commercial farmers. The government is bankrupt and the President, Robert Mugabe, has gone on a state trip to South Africa to try and attract investment. But South Africa does not have spare cash so I guess the begging bowl will be once again held out to the World Food Programme.