The Weather

I have often stated that when people think about agriculture in this part of the world they must take into account the huge mean variation that exists here in rainfall from one year to the next. We suffer from a mean variation in precipitation of about 40 per cent - one of the highest in the world. In much of the Midwest of the USA for example, the same calculation brings up a mean variation of about 5 per cent.

What this means is that you can never be sure of just how much rainfall you are going to get, and more particularly, how it is going to fall. Most of Zimbabwe gets between 450 and 850 millimeters of rain a year - mainly between the 15th of November and the end of March. In this period of about 145 days we have to grow whatever we need to live on for the rest of the year or store water so that we can extend the growing period with irrigation.

I live in the south of the country and we generally consider that three years stored water is about enough to carry us through a difficult patch. At present we have about 30 months supply of water in the dams that serve Bulawayo - not bad by recent standards, but not enough.

Right now we are well into the traditional wet season and in Matabeleland we have had about two weeks of actual wet weather. Our rivers have run once for a couple of weeks and are now dry again. It is unseasonably hot and this is reducing the effectiveness of any small rainfalls.

Normally we say that crops must be in the ground by the 15th of November. Research shows that after this date the maize crop will loose about 5 per cent of its potential yield every week. The reason being daylight hours, temperature and rainfall. Other crops can be planted much later and even into the New Year but only if the growth cycle is very short.

What are the prospects so far in the current season in Zimbabwe? Not very good I am afraid and the situation is deteriorating daily. The reasons are quite simple: -
1. The crop was planted very late due to shortages of just about every input item that is involved, from financing to fertilizer. Of particular importance is that seed of the specific varieties needed was in short supply - actually, was not obtainable in many cases.
2. The area under cultivation is tiny - even in the Communal Lands. The reasons for this are not hard to see. On commercial farms there is simply no security for anyone and nobody is doing much beyond subsistence. In the Communal areas the shortage of manpower for ploughing and other heavy tasks is a major problem. If your breadwinner lives in Johannesburg he cannot come home to plough as he might have done in the past.
3. Germination rains have been very poor and the current hot dry weather is doing a lot of damage - in many cases we are seeing a total write off of the crop in the ground. The situation is especially bad in the south and east of the country. The northwest and the Gokwe area seems to be a bit better but not much.

Conditions are in fact much worse than last year and people are saying they do not even have any prospect for green vegetables or maize in mid season. Hunger looms over thousands of homes throughout the country.

In South Africa a similar crisis is developing and they have scaled back estimates of their maize crop to 5 million tonnes - half of last years crop on a similar area under cultivation. Bad news for South Africa and the region as a whole as we have used South Africa as a backstop for maize supplies in recent years. Just this past week I saw a trainload of 37 bulk grain wagons on the rail line to Bulawayo.

A similar picture is emerging for other key sectors. Cotton normally handles dry periods better and has a much longer growing season. The tobacco crop is declining in potential as commercial growers are still being dispossessed by the Government and the new growers struggle with a myriad of problems and inexperience. I personally would think that we will be lucky to get a crop of 60 000 tonnes this year - less than last year and only a third of current "official" estimates. As for the maize crop - if we grew 700 000 tonnes last year, I cannot see us growing anything like that this year, conditions are much worse.

This is of course exactly what Mugabe wanted - and the timing of the next election in March this year is absolutely spot-on. Elections will hit communities across the land at a time when food stocks and availability will be at their lowest level of the year. Zanu will control all basic food supplies and will use this power to coerce communities to vote for them. There is little the MDC can do to change this situation. We cannot even explain to the people what is happening.

How did the old system overcome these problems in the past? Well for a start the commercial tobacco farmers used to plant about 125 000 hectares of tobacco and then to grow maize as a following crop to pick up fertilizer residues. This made tobacco growers an important source of maize - growing about 600 000 tonnes in a poor year and more in a good year.

It was estimated that the original 6000 commercial farmers could irrigate, if required, up to 268 000 hectares of land. This meant that if water was available in farm dams and rivers, farmers could plant early (the best yields of both tobacco and maize are with crops planted in October) and when a hot dry spell struck - like now, they could put a couple of inches of water on their lands. This would save the crop and enable the commercial farmers to produce something when others saw their crops fail. Average yields on commercial farms were very high - 2000 kgs per hectare of tobacco and 6 tonnes of maize were common.

All of this has gone - swept away by a tide of reckless, politically driven hooliganism. Now we face the elements without a safety net and the consequences for all our people are dire. Mugabe's proud boast of a record harvest has been swept away by a tide of new data. His prediction of a 28 per cent recovery in agricultural output this summer now looks more like yet another year of hunger and a still further decline in total output. But it puts a new weapon in his hands, and after all - that is what counts with Zanu PF. The welfare of the people is the last thing on their mind.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo 5th January 2005