Has Zimbabwe Reached a Tipping Point?

Driving across the parched landscape of Matabeleland North in western Zimbabwe, it’s hard to imagine that this country was once the breadbasket of Southern Africa. The annual rainy season ended in March, and this is supposed to be the most food secure time of the year, when granaries and stomachs are full. But Zimbabwe is in the grips of a second year of drought, exacerbated by El Niño, which has left an estimated 4.5 million people – nearly half of the rural population – without sufficient food.

While drought and the effects of El Niño are currently affecting all of Southern Africa, the situation in Zimbabwe is particularly acute.

While drought and the effects of El Niño are currently affecting all of Southern Africa, the situation in Zimbabwe is particularly acute. This is not because there has been even less rain here than in neighboring countries. Rather, exacerbating the impacts here are decades of underdevelopment and poor governance under the 35-year rule of President Robert Mugabe, which have left 70 percent of Zimbabweans living below the poverty line. As a result of the government’s failure to maintain irrigation and water management infrastructure and undertake much-needed land reform, the vast majority of the country’s farmers are entirely dependent on rain-fed agriculture to survive. At present, malnutrition rates are at their highest in 15 years.

In Binga District, one of the poorest and driest regions of the country, my Refugees International colleague and I met with a group of farmers who lost the majority of their crops this year. I asked them how they planned to feed their families over the coming months. After a few moments of quiet, one elderly man replied in exasperation, “There is no plan! When there’s no rain, there’s no plan! The government is to blame for this.” 

But the drought and inability of Zimbabwe to feed its people are not the country’s only problems. At present, the economy is on the brink of collapse while a cash flow crisis has left the government without funds not only to address the drought emergency but also to pay the salaries of government workers and now the military and police. Two weeks ago, a campaign known by its twitter hashtag #ThisFlag forced a national “stay-away” to protest decades of government corruption, injustice, and ineptitude. In the country’s capital, Harare, foreign banks and most businesses were closed while doctors, nurses, and teachers continued their strike over unpaid wages. Violent clashes have erupted in recent weeks over border closures and relentless police corruption.

The drought and inability of Zimbabwe to feed its people are not the country’s only problems. At present, the economy is on the brink of collapse. 

No one seems to know where things are heading next. Are the cards finally sufficiently stacked against the governing party to force change? Could things turn violent? And with no clear successor to Mugabe and the opposition party itself splintered, if this regime goes, who or what is to follow?

Among all these questions, one thing is certain. Millions of rural poor remain in desperate need of food and water to get them through the next six months. And with forecasts showing a 50 percent chance that La Niña conditions are forming and could result in severe floods, the situation could dramatically worsen come the rainy season in October if steps are not taken now. Among the most vulnerable are women, children, and those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Although significant progress has been made over the past decade, with 15 percent HIV prevalence among adults, Zimbabwe still has among the highest rates of HIV/AIDs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Those affected require food in order to take their antiretroviral therapy (ART) medication, and are more susceptible to illness, disease, and even death in the absence of sufficient water.

Complicating the response in Zimbabwe is the regional nature of crisis. At present, six countries in the region have declared emergencies stemming from the drought, and last Monday, the Southern African Development Community released an appeal for a whopping $2.4 billion in aid which includes the immediate humanitarian needs of 23 million people in 10 countries. The multi-country nature of the disaster means that Zimbabwe can no longer rely on its neighbors – which are now also struggling to feed their own populations – to shore up its food deficit while at the same time, raising myriad logistical and import-related issues that Zimbabwe’s government appears ill-prepared to address.

Far more assistance will be needed in the coming months when food security is expected to further worsen. 

The U.S., other major donors, and the UN deserve credit for providing humanitarian assistance to address food security and nutrition in Zimbabwe. But with emergency food aid scheduled to end come July and the UN’s humanitarian response plan for the country still more than 90 percent underfunded, far more assistance will be needed in the coming months when food security is expected to further worsen. In addition to reaching deeper into their pockets, governments, donors, and UN agencies must make good on their pledges at the UN World Humanitarian Summit earlier this year to ensure that early warning leads to timely early action, thereby minimizing human impacts and avoiding waiting until the crisis reaches is worst point to intervene.   

If there’s any good news in all of this, it’s that the government – long suspicious of Western donors – is currently opening up space for international humanitarian agencies to respond. With the country on the verge of a tipping point, robust humanitarian support is not just urgent – it’s strategically smart.