Jemitias Denhere shakes his head as he explains why, despite being a specialist in soil management and crop production, he specialises in beef livestock.
The district agronomist — plants specialist — owns 27 hectares of land in the Mwenezi area of southern Zimbabwe, a particularly arid location. Here, farmers endure extreme weather challenges such as drought and flash flooding — and, thus, some of the highest food shortages.
His cattle can exist on the little grass that remains during dry times, but to produce crops without irrigation is risky — so he decided against it. “One year, you win; one year, you will fail; repeat,” he said.
But over the past five years, the situation has become worse.
One of the rising uncertainties climate change is bringing to the country: The rains have come much later, with the November rainy season beginning as late as January — and when it comes, there’s less of it, sometimes falling for just one day.
“We’re experiencing the worst style of drought. If we receive rains, it will be like a cyclone: very violent, too windy. Very erratic. So you cannot bank on it. Things are changing every day.”
As a result, maize, the staple diet of rural Zimbabweans, can no longer be counted on with traditional farming methods.
Denhere, a university-educated professional who has trained in Brazil and China, is one of the lucky ones, with a salary as the district agronomist and 25 cattle.
But about 80% of Zimbabwe’s population — rising to 90% in this area — are subsistence farmers, meaning they rely on rain-fed agriculture to feed themselves and their families.
Life as a farmer in Zimbabwe is tough, with lack of water, poor sanitation and little food. It’s common to have only one or two meals a day of sadza. Extreme weather is adding to the problem, with most agreeing that conditions are very different from 20 or 30 years ago.
He now plants small grains such as sorghum and finger millet, as well as velvet beans because they are naturally more resistant to drought and have shorter seasons, so there is less risk if a whole harvest is lost.
“Previously, we could rely on the weather. Now, we are gambling on the rainfall.”
Food shortages are already acute. The Zimbabwean government estimates that more than 2.4 million people in rural areas will face acute food insecurity at the peak of the current “lean season” of January to March.
Overall rainfall has declined nearly 5% across Zimbabwe during the past century, according to a report on climate change
from the Zimbabwean government and the United Nations Development Programme last year.
It describes the climate changes as threefold: Not only is there less rain, but it now rains at a different time of the year and in different areas. It’s erratic.
In Mwenezi, people have also reported heavy hailstorms and strong winds that have destroyed crops.
“It’s clear that people are feeling increased uncertainty about the weather,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, which advises the Red Cross globally. But he adds that while it’s known that climate change is bringing more heat and rising risk of drought to this area, there is no clear scientific evidence about changes in hail or strong winds — mainly because researchers don’t have the data.
Separate from these climate changes is the weather phenomenon El Niño, a fluctuation in the climate system that warms the sea surface temperature in the Pacific. In 2015-16, this caused
a drought in Zimbabwe, followed by flooding. Staple crops such as maize were wiped out, and more than 2.8 million people
were left in need of food aid, with then-President Robert Mugabe declaring a state of disaster.
Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, says another El Niño is now likely, and although it won’t be as bad as four years ago, it will still have “considerable impacts” such as higher-than-normal temperatures and a more prolonged dry spell.
But the consequences of such extreme weather go even further, beyond livelihoods, hunger and education, to the population’s health — including HIV.
Harvest failures and HIV
Restaurant owner Musa Sibanda, 56, a volunteer with the Zimbabwean Red Cross, says she commonly sees people living with HIV who have complications after harvest failures because the lack of food affects the effectiveness of their treatment.
They may take the pills without food and feel ill, or perhaps they don’t take the pills at all, with fatal consequences, she said.
Patients need to be well-nourished to take the medication, but they rely on a good harvest to feed themselves, District Medical Officer Dr. Itai Matibiri explained. If they don’t have enough food, their already-vulnerable bodies will not respond as well, and they may experience side effects such as nausea and stomach upset, he said.
Zimbabwe has the fifth-highest HIV rate
in the world after eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Botswana and South Africa, with a 13.3% prevalence among 15- to 49-year-olds, according to UNAIDS
data. An estimated 1.3 million people were living with the virus in 2017, with 41,000 new cases that year, the organization
Reported access to antiretroviral therapy in Zimbabwe is relatively high at 84%, and treatment is free. But adherence is a big issue.
Without their medication, their viral load — the number of HIV viruses in the bloodstream — increases, said Miatibiri, who is one of just two doctors working out of Mwenezi District Hospital in Neshuro, which covers a population of 202,000 across an area of 5,000 square miles.
In addition, when they don’t have food to sell, they can’t pay for transport to pick up their medicine, he said.
Tarisai Mubhoyi, 43, who lost her husband to AIDS in 2008, admits that she has skipped her HIV pills to avoid the side effects on occasions when she has had no food. When she does have food, it’s often a simple dish of sadza and dried vegetable relish.
Mubhoyi is adamant that she will take her HIV medication, made easier by produce from her garden. “If I didn’t take the medicine, I don’t want to find out what would happen.”
Meanwhile, Chikuko has the opportunity to learn climate-smart agriculture techniques at the Red Cross Farming Centre of Excellence at Neshuro, 2 miles from the district hospital, by experts like Denhere, the district agronomist.
He’s been taught about mulching, to trap moisture into the soil, as well as using short-season varieties that ripen in two months instead of six, giving him more reliable produce.
In two years, he’s had remarkable results.
Last year, he planted two fields with maize, one in the traditional way and one using his new skills. The difference couldn’t be clearer: While many shoots in the traditional field are just starting to poke through the earth, the climate-smart maize has ripened and is a foot higher.