When it does not rain

People who live in more benign climates cannot know anything about our critical dependence on a few short months of rain for our very survival. Right now as I write at my desk, the sky outside is a terrifying blue. Yesterday was the same; in fact we have had little or no rain for nearly two months. The veld is starting to look as it does in winter - during months when we normally expect our wettest period of the year.

Our rivers have not run this year and our supply dams are all falling rapidly, two are already dry and two have enough in them for another 4 or 5 months, leaving us with one dam for our total needs and that is unlikely to last the year unless we get late rains. Today’s weather forecast is for dry weather for at least another week. I have already flattened the vegetable garden and was thinking this morning that we may have to allow the citrus trees to die. Most of the rest of the garden is already brown and scorched.

On top of everything else this is particularly tough for us who love our gardens and are willing to spend money and time to seeing that the roses are just right and that the lawn is fed and trimmed. Still, if you live in a semi arid region of the globe you must expect this sort of thing to happen from time to time. I well recall 1992 when we had no rain at all in many parts of the country. Vast estates of citrus and sugar died and Bulawayo was on an emergency supply basis, even using water drawn from an aquifer some kilometers to the north. We had interests in a ranch at that time and I do not think there was a blade of grass within 200 kilometers of the ranch homestead.

Water is more critical to life than most things and when you have it, it is unappreciated - when you are short of it then you realize its importance. So it was with interest that I listened to the reports of the study group on climate warming this past week. The news was not good - at last the scientists have agreed that global warming is for real, that it is, in part, man made and then went on to say (disconcertingly) that no matter what we do about emissions, it is here to stay and cannot be reversed in the short term (100 years or so).

The projections are difficult to read and interpret but they generally agree that the drier regions of the world will be drier and the wetter regions wetter!! So today, I sit in drought stricken Matabeleland and watch pictures of much of Indonesia under water. I also saw this morning a warning from the Mozambique government to the effect that people must move away from the lower Zambezi river where flooding was expected. The report stated that this was because they had opened all the gates at Cahora Bassa, releasing 3500 cubic metres of water per second into the river below the wall and the dam has continued to rise. They attributed this to heavy rains in Zambia, the Congo and Malawi.

So if this report is true - what can we expect and how do we manage the predicted outcomes? Well first of all we must all recognise that poverty makes every situation worse. Poor people cannot defend themselves from the effects of changes in their environment and are also environment dependent. Peasant farmers live constantly with the threat of starvation and deprivation. This is why they are so easily manipulated by wayward governments like our own.

Secondly we must accept that large areas of our country are going to be unsuitable for human habitation - certainly on the basis of normal agronomic practice. We will have to ensure that people who depend on agriculture for their livelihood are located in regions where the rainfall and soils types allow such activity to take place. In the arid regions of Zimbabwe where we get less than 350 mls of rainfall a year, we should look at systems that will protect these fragile environments and facilitate some sort of decent economic returns. Tourism and wild life suggests themselves to me in this respect and even then, we must provide for water and a fodder bank for the tough times when it simply does not rain.

For the Cities like Bulawayo, we have got to take a long hard look at our needs and the resources available. When I was growing up in the Esigodini Valley south of Bulawayo I can recall a stream that never ceased to flow - all year round. We did some irrigation from that stream and ran a small dairy and pig farm. Today that stream never flows and the farm I was raised on, is derelict. We simply have to use our water resources better. I am told that 40 per cent of the raw water sent to the City from our dams is lost in a myriad of leaking pipes and burst water mains. We pump water up a 1000 metres head and over 35 kilometers and then spend millions cleaning it up and making it potable and then we send it down our pipes and flush it away into the catchments of the Zambezi river that does not really need our largesse.

We need to do what other major cities do all over the world, capture that waste water and clean it up and send it back to our purification plants. We need to build more dams and to practice conservation in all its different aspects. There was a time when this country was the most advanced in Africa, perhaps in the arid third world as well, in the field of land and water conservation. It is no longer discussed as a priority and our leaders show little understanding of it as an issue, but this is life and death stuff for those of us who live in arid parts of Africa.

We need to take a leaf out of Israel’s short history as a country. They have turned desert into watered plains and they have done it on a resource base that was nothing like as rich as our own. Every person who lives in that country or who works on a farm, knows that water is life and that it is everyone’s responsibility to look after it when it falls from the sky or comes out of the end of a pipe.

But one thing is for sure, a Zimbabwe that is undemocratic, does not respect the rule of law or property rights and impoverishes its people by draining its wealth into the pockets and bank accounts of the few who are politically connected, simply cannot handle yet another calamity such as drought and global warming. Our people will be faced with only two alternatives if this rogue regime is not removed soon - flee or stay and be impoverished and die an early death.

Just this week some 40 soldiers at Nkomo Barracks outside Harare shot their horses and then fled with their guns. I have not heard if they have been caught, but I doubt it. Where have they gone? I suggest South Africa where they will use their training and their weapons to make a living - at the expense of every South African. Are these issues linked? Of course they are, it is our political masters who are failing to make the connection and one day they will be blindsided by a crisis that will be of their own making.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 5th February 2007