Zimbabwe drought pushing the poorest to the edge

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I try to stay hopeful but am worried that next month I will die.”

Beatrice* looked me right in the eye. 

We were at a World Food Program food distribution site in the Binga district in Matabeleland North in Zimbabwe. As we drove along the dry and uneven dirt roads to the distribution site that day, we were surrounded by withered crops from yet another ruined harvest season. Receiving less than 450 millimeters (approximately 18 inches) of rain per year on average, this is one of the most food insecure areas of Zimbabwe. But an unprecedented drought brought on by El Niño and a second year of failed harvest have pushed already food-insecure households in the region to the brink.   

At present, more than 2.8 million people in Zimbabwe – 30 percent of the rural population – require urgent humanitarian assistance.

While the ongoing El Niño has been impacting countries across the globe, in Zimbabwe, a country where 72 percent of the people live in chronic poverty and 70 percent rely on rain-fed agriculture to survive, the impacts of the prolonged drought and repeated crop failures have been severe.

Beatrice had walked two hours to get to the distribution site that morning. However, what showed most clearly during our conversation was not her fatigue but rather her despair, as she forcefully gestured in the direction of her children. She was taking care of three children by herself. Two were her own children, ages 16 and 4, and the third child had been abandoned by her mother. The children used to eat three meals a day but now are down to two. Worse yet, this is Zimbabwe’s immediate post-harvest season when food stocks are normally at their height. How Beatrice and her children will get by over the coming months into the country’s next lean season is unclear. 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I try to stay hopeful but am worried that next month I will die.”

But Beatrice’s worries were not just about her children – she’s also worried about herself because Beatrice is HIV-positive. While she has enough medicine right now, she is required to take her medication with food, and she doesn’t think she will have enough food to eat next month. The monthly lean season distributions were already extended from March due to the drought, but today is the last of the monthly lean season distributions.  For now, the food aid Beatrice and her children have been receiving and relying on is ending. 

Beatrice doesn’t know how she and the children will survive without food assistance next month. She said that her neighbors try to help each other, especially when children are in need. But now they have nothing to share. Access to water is increasingly difficult and she has to ask her neighbors for help with the one available water pump, which is very difficult to use and not easily accessible. She planned to find wild fruits next month as her main food source but didn’t know what else she would do to be able to feed herself and the children.

Unfortunately, Beatrice is not alone. At present, more than 2.8 million people in Zimbabwe – 30 percent of the rural population – require urgent humanitarian assistance.

Moreover, forecasts for continuing drier-than-average conditions through mid-2016 indicate that the crisis will continue to worsen over the course of the year and into 2017. Climate change impacts on rainfall will exacerbate chronic levels of food insecurity felt in many areas of the country. Even in a normal rain year, 700,000 people in Zimbabwe remain food insecure and face difficulties making ends meet, while only 11 percent of children get adequate nutrition.

While Zimbabwe has long struggled with drought and food insecurity, compounding the current situation is the fact that the El Niño is affecting the entire region. With six countries now having declared emergencies and an overall regional food deficit of 8.6 million tons, it’s no longer a given that Zimbabwe can rely on its neighbors this time around.

The Zimbabwean government does not have the financial resources to respond in a significant way. But is the international humanitarian community ready to respond? 

The Zimbabwean government does not have the financial resources to respond in a significant way. But is the international humanitarian community ready to respond? At present, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan remains woefully underfunded, even though it is likely to be revised upward in line with recent assessments showing that the crisis is only deepening. Given Zimbabwe’s fragile dynamics and an environment of uncertainty, strategic planning for anticipated worsening conditions is not only responsible but also necessary. 

Time is running out for Beatrice, her children and the little girl she is taking care of. The international community must take notice of their plight.

*Beatrice’s name has been changed.