Zimbabwe’s disaster preparedness has returned to haunt the country in the aftermath of a devastating drought. Questions have long been asked about the reliability and efficacy of the country’s early warning systems to forecast pending disasters such as below normal rainfall that will lead to drought.

While other Southern African countries have also been affected by El Niño, Zimbabwe appears to be the hardest hit. Agriculture is a capital-intensive undertaking, a fact that Zimbabwe has embraced as seen by the figures that have been thrown about by the authorities regarding investments in irrigation and mechanisation to drive the sector’s growth. Yet, it is the preparedness to deal with natural climate shifts that have tested the country’s commitment and limitations to put in place mechanisms that will cushion farmers and help keep the country fed. This is also happening at a time when least developed countries continue to lobby the world’s richest economies, who are also the largest emitters, to meet their obligations towards financing climate adaptation and mitigation programmes of countries such as Zimbabwe. Agencies are stepping in to help address these shortcomings.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says it is upping its resilience strategy in the Southern African region to deal with challenges in the agriculture. The announcement came as a response to the drought that Zimbabwe and other countries are experiencing, but it is of interest that the FAO initiative will be most needed in Zimbabwe where agriculture resilience has been found wanting. “FAO Zimbabwe is implementing diverse initiatives across the agriculture sector as a contribution to FAO’s Resilience Strategy Southern Africa,” the agency said in an April update.

“The initiatives include taking a proactive approach to support timely information use in the agricultural and food security sector. This not only enables better hazard detection but also enhances the sector’s overall resilience in responding to emerging challenges,” the brief continued. Zimbabwe has struggled with reliable short-term weather forecasts, and climate change has presented challenges for long-term monitoring, with farmers left to rely on traditional knowledge about when to plant their crops. In that regard, the Food and Agriculture Organisation says its interventions will “establish interventions that establish robust frameworks for anticipatory action coordination as well as early warning surveillance systems.”

Last year, agencies working in Zimbabwe requested the activation of the Early Action Protocol for Drought as El Niño loomed. This would help communities affected by El Niño with “early warning information to support at-risk communities when planning their own actions to mitigate the impacts of the drought,” according to a Zimbabwe Red Cross Society brief. “A forecast of an El Niño event, with an impact level corresponding to once-in-six-year event, will act as the first trigger for low investment Early Actions (early warning disseminations, drought tolerant seed distributions and livestock dosing),” the International Federation of the Red Cross said in its Early Action Protocol Notification in September last year. September marks the onset of land preparation as the rainy season approaches in most parts of Zimbabwe.

Other agencies have also noted the urgent need for policy development and programme implementation to guide agriculture performance and food production. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) says at least one million four hundred thousand cattle in Zimbabwe could be lost to drought, this is despite the Ministry of Agriculture’s drive to increase the country’s national herd. Zimbabwe has failed to attend to the structural deficits that will drive that repopulating of the national herd even as international agencies warned about the pending El Niño phenomenon. It is that preparedness which analysts say would help cushion cattle deaths estimated by agencies such as FEWSNET. The Agriculture and Rural Development Advisory Service (ARDAS), a government agency, announced in December last year that the country had lost more than seven thousand cattle to drought, while the Veterinary Services Department announced in April that twelve thousand cattle had died in two months due to hunger and disease.

More cattle are expected to succumb to drought this year, again raising questions about disaster preparedness especially after the Agriculture Ministry said it had embarked on a countrywide borehole drilling drive to help alleviate water stress that has affected both humans and livestock. However, the limits of those interventions are being felt across the country especially after earlier declarations by the government that Zimbabwe would not be importing any food as it had enough to feed itself. Only weeks later, the President would declare the country needed upwards of USD2 billion in food assistance, and critics say there is little to show that the country has learnt from its past disaster preparedness shortcomings.