Why is it that droughts always seem to surprise, despite the warnings? The current El Niño drought is no exception, and the patterns of response (and lack of response) are remarkably familiar when looking back at the 1991-92 El Niño drought. There is a scary sense of déjà vu 25 years on, with important political implications, both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In 1991-92 I was working with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Farming Systems Research Unit on a project on risk, livelihoods and dryland farming in Chivi district. We had the opportunity of studying the drought up close. The findings are reported in the book Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Africa. Lessons from Zimbabwe. It’s now out of print, but you can still find copies second hand. In the coming three weeks, I will share some of the findings from back then, but also reflect on what’s changed since.
Here is an extract from chapter 10. Sound familiar?
“The national Early Warning Unit first sounded the alarm about impending food shortages in July 1991. At that time they alerted the government that food stocks would run out in early 1992. This proved to be ominously accurate…..[A SADC Food Security Bulletin dated July 1991 noted} “An overall cereal shortfall of 189,000 tonnes is anticipated… Although the country has no exportable maize surplus, the GMB has an export commitment of 228000 tonnes… Imports of 383000 tonnes will be needed. So far, however, no import plans for maize have been formulated”.
Through 1991, the multiple warnings were basically ignored. As we discuss in the book:
”Indeed, no-one appeared to trust them. Even when the situation was obviously critical the government insisted on commissioning its own monitoring exercise to investigate the food situation in the country. Similarly the United Nations World Food Programme and Food and Agricultural Organisation sent their own mission to confirm the results emerging from the early warning system, before committing themselves to food relief activities….
….It was only when the failure of the 1991-92 rains became very clear and the national press started to highlight the issue, that government started to act. In April 1992, The Herald reported the concerns of Syndey Malunga MP: “The government must ensure that its promises to the nation to make food available during the drought are met, otherwise the rift between the Government and the people will cause the failure of the economic reform programme” (Herald, 8.4.92). Stories of how people were driven to extreme lengths by the failures of the relief effort were common. For instance, The Herald reported how Mberengwa villagers forced a train driver to stop and stole over 300 bags of maize and how Masvingo residents were scavenging for food in dustbins (Herald, 5.10.92).
In February 1992 the government announced significant increases in producer prices for white maize… However such incentives were too late to provide the necessary maize for the year. By February the GMB only expected 250 000 tonnes of maize to be delivered from Zimbabwean producers, but demand was likely to rise during the year to around 150 000 tonnes per month because of the near complete failure of the communal area crop. The Chairman of the GMB suggested….that Zimbabwe would have to import up to 2 million tonnes of maize to meet local demand.. (Herald, 21.2.92). A columnist in the Financial Gazette commented:
“This predicament need never have arisen. The primary cause of the problem has been the totally impractical maize price. Droughts do come but the nation has had three reasonable seasons…Stockpiles are a necessity. It is now evident that at least one year’s supply should always be retained rather than selling maize for foreign currency” (Financial Gazette, 13.2.92).
The food import programme started during December 1991. The arrival of food aid in the country was plagued by logistical problems, made worse by the widespread nature of the drought in the region. Hazards and Opportunities recalls:
“Road and rail transport was commandeered in order to bring American grain from South Africa and Mozambique. By March 1992 the country had effectively run out of reserves and people waited expectantly for supplies. By the end of March the President had appointed eight ministers to oversee food relief in the provinces. The first American maize arrived at the ports at the end of March, but by the first week of April there was still none inside the country, although six maize trains a day supplemented by road transport were expected (Herald, 7.4.92). The government committed itself to the feeding of some 4-5 million people during the drought requiring the eventual importation of around 1.7million tonnes. The initial monthly ration allocation of 10kg per person was later reduced to 5kg as supplies became uncertain and costs escalated…
…..However by mid-1992, public and political pressure mounted sufficiently and by most accounts a highly effective and efficient drought relief and food distribution campaign was launched. By this time, the cost of relief was around Z$30 million per month, much of which was paid for by government. During 1992 in Masvingo Province, around 250 000 children were being given regular supplementary feeding rations and around one million people (practically the whole communal area population) were receiving food relief. Churches and NGOs also played an important role in providing distribution facilities. The total costs of the drought relief operation were estimated to be around 2.7% of GDP in 1991-92 and 4.5% of GDP in 1992-93, requiring a significant increase in government borrowing”.
Those who remember the situation in 1991-92 in Zimbabwe, will recall how things were increasingly desperate. Government seemed unable to respond, and donors were equally silent. But the drought soon became political. In the book, we wrote:
“For a time during 1992 the government had lost control; its food security policy was completely discredited, its maize pricing policy was suddenly drastically revised, the Minister for Agriculture was hurriedly shifted and the highly unpopular economic structural adjustment policy looked to be going off course. The rumblings of discontent had reached even the remotest rural areas, usually the stalwarts of support for the ZANU-PF party and government….
….Politicians did not trust the information emanating from their own civil servants, nor from international sources. Despite the claims of scientific certitude of the early warning bulletins, the government failed to act early on. It was only through a wider political process of lobbying and petitioning, by government officials in the districts, by the press and by churches, NGOs and others that forced action…. Uncertainty over what to do about the drought had resulted in a certain helplessness and a loss of political control and power.”
Indeed it was not until well into 1992, that the state took control of the situation. Indeed President Mugabe himself intervened. The book comments:
“Not until the launch of the food aid programme and the country-wide tours by President Mugabe was some confidence restored. Only then was it realised by rural people that Mugabe and the ZANU-PF government had not broken their post-independence bargain and would not let the people of Zimbabwe starve….”.
Indeed it was this political intervention, and not the early warning statistics, and the dire warnings from the districts, that meant that the 1991-92 drought was not the disaster it might have been (although it was pretty bad). Drought is inevitably political. And failure to act as people are suffering is not looked at kindly. While Mugabe’s intervention was welcome, it was also seen as too little and too late. We commented:
“The politicians did not know what to do. They refused to believe the science of prediction and would not listen, at least initially, to their constituents. The uncertainty surrounding drought resulted in a perilous loss of control and an unnerving loss of power. Power and control were only regained by firm action later on, when political and social processes, and not rational scientific argument, provided the impetus for action…”
Uncertainties around climate always exist. Climate models never can predict exactly, and even shorter-run weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable (how many times have the Met Office predicted imminent rains this year?). This is compounded with our lack of knowledge – and associated poor statistics – on Zimbabwe’s food economy. We simply don’t know how much food is being produced by whom and where, and how much is being sold in local markets, shared through local networks, or being transported to different areas, including towns. As I have mentioned before on this blog, the post 2000 land reform has radically changed the food system, and we don’t know its implications. My best guess, based on the mismatches between our local data and the aggregate statistics, is that the official stats are way off, but I don’t know by how much, and how this varies across the country.
Getting to grips with this, and improving the statistical basis for responses to drought is essential. At the moment huge efforts are based on massive guesswork. So it’s not surprising there’s large dispute about the statistics – some calling an impending catastrophe, others arguing things are not as bad as we thought. Bottom line is we just don’t know, and this is a dangerous situation.
It is dangerous practically, but it is also dangerous politically. We saw from 1991-92 how a late response in Zimbabwe was only salvaged by later decisive action. Famine was averted, and although many hardships were suffered, and a devastation of the livestock population occurred, a major humanitarian disaster did not unfold, despite huge economic losses. This of course was in a setting where politics looked very different. Today with fragmented authority and endless battles for political supremacy and a President who is 25 years older, decisive leadership are not qualities often seen. The government has however declared the drought a ‘national disaster’, although ministerial ineptitude and bungling has been widely condemned, with the opposition highlighting the confusion
It is interesting to contrast Zimbabwe’s experience with that of South Africa. In 1991-92 in South Africa, the drought response was impressive and coordinated, and drew on the incipient state structures of the ANC, impressively led by the Land and Agriculture Desk of the ANC’s Department of Economic Planning. As Coleen Vogel reminded me in a paper presented at a recent workshop, the decentralised network of Drought Forums provided the basis for a focused and effective response, and these in turn became the foundation for the post-1994 development committees, and the basis of the short-lived but radical Reconstruction and Development Programme effort. Fast forward to 2016, the ANC has been unable to respond effectively to the ravaging drought, with President Zuma failing to present a coherent policy, and getting heckled in parliament by opposition groups.
Wherever you are in southern Africa, politics and drought are intimately connected. And in 2016, the conditions for an effective response both in Zimbabwe and South Africa look worse than 25 years ago. And this despite huge amounts of effort invested in drought proofing, livelihood programmes, resilience building and so on in the intervening period; and yet more projects expected on the back of climate adaptation finance.
Why is drought response as bad today, or often worse than before? Several things strike me.
First, despite all the hype about climate change and resilience building, very few such programmes look at the underlying patterns of vulnerability and how these have changed. Vulnerabilities arise very often from social and political factors, and so are less amenable to technical, donor-led interventions. Just adding sticking plaster in the name of climate ‘adaptation’ or ‘resilience’ is not enough. As we argued long back in our Hazards and Opportunities book, responses require tackling the root causes of vulnerability – including as I will show in a blog in a couple of weeks addressing inequalities, including of land.
Second, uncertainties cannot be planned for. By definition we don’t know the probability of the outcome, and very often we don’t know what outcome will result, meaning we are in the realm of ignorance. For administrative, bureaucratic and financing systems to respond in such settings is tough. Such systems are conventionally geared towards certainties, or at least predictable risks. This is why they so often fail. Predictions (based on risk assumptions) very often turn out not to be the case, and so trust is undermined. And administrators may argue for more funds or food reserves, only to be rebuffed. Dealing with what Emery Roe calls ‘mess’ in order to generate reliability in system response is essential, but it requires a radical overhaul of approaches. Governments, UN agencies, NGOs, district administrations and others are just not geared up, and they almost inevitably fail, as they are doing now.
Third, we have to remember drought is always political. The basic ‘contract’ between the state and people has to be renegotiated in drought periods, meaning engaging with rural people. For far too long elite politics in Zimbabwe (and of course in South Africa) has often ignored rural areas. The implicit deal is that rural votes for a ruling party are secured by making basic support available, including food in times of drought. But this dependency relationship cannot persist. People want more, and that means proper investment and support, not just palliative forms of development. As Zimbabwe’s (and South Africa’s) politics fragments, and the liberation parties struggle to maintain power, then people are going to look to others. This makes addressing drought firmly and effectively even more important, yet both ZANU-PF and the ANC are currently failing, as other political issues dominate.
Ignoring the drought, however, may well have long-term political consequences if the current failures continue. Watch out for some big impacts of drought on politics across southern Africa.
By Ian Scoones. This article first appeared on Zimbabweland