A Sense of Proportion

If you are an avid news addict like myself and have access to all the main news services of the world, it is very easy to get the impression that the world is in a terrible shape and that we are all, everywhere, in a state of crisis. But we all know that this is not the case and if you step away from your television or computer screen, you very quickly establish that most of the time life goes on and we face few surprises.

If you are in government or business, then you need to maintain a sense of proportion – what is important? What is really urgent, so urgent that it has to be dealt with NOW! It is so easy to be diverted by things that are not really in any sense important or deal breaking. However sometimes things creep up on us which turn out to be anything but trivial and which have the potential to change a whole lot of things and which, if not attended to will cause damage.

In the recent past we have seen the collapse of regimes across the Middle East, the global financial crisis and now the dramatic fall in crude oil prices from $115 a barrel to $28 a barrel last week – a fall of 75 per cent. If you are an oil producer I think that is a problem that must be addressed, but as the Saudi Government said – they can carry the reduction in prices for another 6 years.

However, global warming and climate change are not in that category – some years ago a Professor in the UK told me that the science was firming up and that looking at his old country – Zimbabwe, it looked as if we would be one of the worst affected. Only in the past two years have we really paid attention to what the scientists are saying and it would appear as if we have a real long term problem.

In 2014/15 I watched the weather in southern Africa on a weekly basis and noticed how time and time again the weather circumvented Zimbabwe. Circling around us and denying us urgently needed rain. This year it’s been much worse and I can look out of my office window right now, in the middle of our wet season and see not a blade of green grass. We have had virtually no rain since October and the temperature is 37 c on the verandah in the shade.

In South Africa they are saying this is the worst season in 118 years. Driving down to Bulawayo on Friday I did not see a single crop that I thought had any chance of reaching maturity and yielding a reasonable amount of grain. 8 countries are affected and only Zambia has a reasonable crop of maize with estimates putting it at 2 million tonnes. Even so they will have to import a small quantity to meet demand if they do not halt exports from stocks immediately.

In South Africa 5 Provinces are in a state of emergency but the Minister responsible refuses to declare a national state of emergency. The students go on the rampage in the Universities over fees and the Government announces a R5 billion support package. Over the fence, the Ministry of Agriculture announce that they have committed just over R300 million to drought relief. No sense of proportion at all in my view.

If we take a holistic look at the weather situation in southern Africa and its implications, they are stark. Already milk prices have risen 20 per cent, grain prices have doubled and shortages of other basic foods such as potatoes and vegetables are driving up prices. Poultry and pig prices are rising sharply and I would guess that food will be the major push factor for inflation in the next few months. These changes will affect everyone in the region – some 150 million people and will hit the poor most of all as they spend a very high proportion of their incomes on food.

I estimate the regional grain deficit at 22 million tonnes – we need to import at least 1,2 million tonnes each month from overseas, through our Ports and over our railways for the next 18 months. South African Ports can only handle 4 million tonnes of grain in bulk per annum, Mozambique Ports perhaps two million tonnes, Namibia, nothing and Nacala (Malawi and northern Mozambique) nothing as well. This is a maximum bulk handling capacity of 500 000 tonnes a month, less than half the likely demand. The rest will have to be bagged and handled by crane.

Then there is the inland movement by rail – 1,2 million tonnes will require 40 000

wagons and 1200 locomotives. This whole operation will cost $10 billion and remember, this is all on top of “normal” requirements. For many countries, including my own, this is way out of our reach financially and from an infrastructural point of view.

Then there is the impact on water supplies – across the region towns and Cities are running out of water. Over thousands of square kilometers wild life and livestock are dying of thirst. Water you cannot do without and the impact is immediate. How do we supply water to remote communities? How do we ration urban communities to eke out what is available? Whole communities are going to have to relocate to places where there is water and refugees are going to be a new phenomenon this winter.

The big question is whether this is a one off event or is it going to be a regular feature of the new weather patterns that will result as a consequence of climate change. I am nervous that this might be the case. If that is true then we will learn that climate change is the ultimate accelerator, one that amplifies a 100 times all the problems we are grappling with today in our everyday lives.

I have seen the traditional cropping areas in South Africa and they are dry and dusty, 80 per cent of the summer crop has not even been planted. How are these thousands of farmers going to survive? I am told that they owe the Banks a combined sum of R125 billion. What support mechanisms are in place? If we take a look at the Ministries responsible, the answer is almost laughable – nothing in comparison with the magnitude of the problems; simply no sense of proportion at all.

Here in Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Agriculture continues to put out a false picture of security. In fact I do not think they even understand the magnitude of the problems we face. We run the risk, for the first time in our history, of running out of our basic staple foods. If we do, the consequences for our society will be catastrophic.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 24th January 2016