Lessons Learned

Drought! A Zimbabwe Case Study

Originally published January 2017

The Government of Zimbabwe has been under fire from the international community because of the lack of relevant democratic institutions, a result of the Mugabe regime’s attempt to hold on to power. Assistance for development or even sustainable DRR activities cannot be counted on. Given the state of Zimbabwe’s economy, it was up to those adversely affected by hydromet hazards to more or less fend for themselves, hoping that humanitarian assistance would come from outside the region. A university professor gave the following advice: “catch the water, store it in reservoirs and then use it reliably” (Chara, 2014).  

“Zimbabwe is considered a low income, food-deficit country, ranked 156 out of 187 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index, which measures progress and failure in the global fight against hunger”.

Mutenga, 2015

There is a controversy as to whether there has been a decline in precipitation in Zimbabwe in recent decades. Regardless, changing land use, deforestation, droughts and dry spells, lack of irrigation water, land surface desiccation, and El Niño-related droughts have all adversely impacted the country’s meteorological and hydrological processes to the detriment of food security. Global warming is expected to make this bad situation even worse (see, for example, Brazier 2016). 

Farmers are on small plots of land, as the large productive European farms were divided into small subsistence plots that were given by President Mugabe to his political supporters in the early 2000s. Since then, with the implementation of the measures of the Land Reform, Zimbabwe’s farmers have become more vulnerable to hydromet disasters (Nangombe 2014). Land reform marked a turning point in Zimbabwe’s food production, as the country went from producing a food-surplus and exporting crops in and before the 1990s to its present food deficit classification (Rogers 2013). Most poor farmers are on small plots. 

According to a recent Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report, “Rural food insecurity has remained high in Zimbabwe over the past decade due to a combination of unfavorable weather conditions, low productivity, high poverty levels, vulnerable livelihoods, high food prices, among other factors” (Mutenga, 2015).

Source: Reuters Bulawayo Villagers collect their monthly food ration provided by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, 25 January 2016

During El Niño events, there is a high probability of drought, food shortages and food insecurity in Zimbabwe. According to FEWSNET, 

“Historically, El Niño conditions are associated with below average and erratic rainfall in the southeastern parts of the region during this period. These conditions might result in a late start of season in the southern parts of Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.”

Mutenga, 2015

The 1991-92 El Niño caused major drought in Zimbabwe and adversely affected agriculture. The 1991-92 El Niño was often cited as a reference point for 2015-16, as in comparison to 1991-92 the 1997-98 event had only minor impacts in Zimbabwe. According to the agriculture ministry, Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst drought since 1992, which killed over one million cattle (Moyo, 2016). 

Zimbabwe entered the 2015-16 El Niño already suffering from drought and food shortages. The 2013-14 farming season was poor. There was concern that 2014- 15 would be an El Niño year and that would mean likely drought conditions during the rainy season (October to April). International forecasts predicted a major El Niño event with a high probability of being a record-setting event. It began to occur but eventually began to collapse as early as May 2014, a false alarm. Even though the highly advertised 2014 El Niño did not materialize, drought conditions nonetheless did occur, however. Also in 2014, a 1.67 million tonne regional (Southern Africa) deficit of Maize arose. Within a few months came the forecast of an extraordinary 2015-16 El Niño, again touted as a rival to the 1997-98 “El Niño of the Century.” The entire country was adversely affected but more so in the arid-semiarid south of Zimbabwe (Matabeleland area) than in the north. 

According to the FAO, “Southern Africa is currently in the grip of an intense drought driven by one of the strongest El Niño events recorded in the past 50 years. Across large swathes of Zimbabwe, this year’s rainfall season has so far been the driest in recent years. In typical years, families normally have enough food to eat after the main harvests begin in late March and April; that however is not the case this year” (FAO 2016).

The United Nations children’s fund estimates that “At least 11 million children in eastern and southern Africa face hunger, disease, and water shortages as a result of the strongest El Niño 25 weather phenomenon in decades” (Migiro, 2015). 

Hurdles and Obstacles 

The isolation of Zimbabwe by the international community has put considerable pressure on its people. Humanitarian organizations have been able to come to the rescue to some degree, but the question remains: how can the international community effectively and universally assist a population in dire need of food and water while in essence boycotting the Zimbabwean government? 

In order for a country to prepare for hydromet hazards, its government must have the financial means to develop and pursue foresight-driven, proactive policies for hydromet DRR. The economy of Zimbabwe is in chronic crisis and financial resources are hard to come by. Aside from the “way” to achieve DRR, there must also be a “will” to do so. Articles appear suggesting that the government of Zimbabwe does not have the resources at this time to pursue DRR. The government has apparently neglected support for infrastructure maintenance and repair and has invested very little in irrigation, forecasting, or drought tolerant cultivars. 


  • Countries that are relatively isolated or experiencing crises in governance are less likely to invest strategically in enhancing forecasting and preparedness for El Niño events.
  • Do not look at only one El Niño year to identify and respond to the impacts of an ENSO warm or cold event. Several El Niño years and their impacts must be looked at to get an idea of what is likely to happen and what might be necessary to prepare for. Doing so, however, seemingly goes against human nature.
  • The tendency is to look only as far back as to the last major el Niño, which was the 1997-98 event, even though earlier events may serve better as analogue years.
  • Climate, water and weather impacts one year before as well as one year after an El Niño event must be looked at. In Zimbabwe, the 2015-16 record-setting drought was preceded by a severe drought in the growing season of 2014-15. Impacts of drought in a year that precedes the onset of an El Niño worsen the impacts of the El Niño-related drought year that tends to follow.
  • Enhanced support for NGOs that educate small stakeholders and farmers about water-harvesting best practices and about growing drought tolerant crops, as needed.
  • An impact map depicting an El Niño’s teleconnections does not indicate the strength of the teleconnection or the magnitude of 26 the event, and therefore is not sufficient for use in the planning and development of long-term goals.
  • The value of real-time reviews of a country’s impacts and responses to El Niño need to be compared with historical accounts once the El Niño has ended. It can provide a glimpse of the feelings and emotions in real time that accompanied the 2015-16 El Niño and its impacts.
  • It is important to note that the impacts of an El Niño event can linger for seasons as well as years after an El Niño event has ended.
  • The value of real-time reviews of a country’s impacts and responses to El Niño need to be compared with historical accounts once the El Niño has ended. It can provide a glimpse of the feelings and emotions in real time that accompanied the 2015-16 El Niño and its impacts.
  • It is important to note that the impacts of an El Niño event can linger for seasons as well as years after an El Niño event has ended.  

Read the entire El Niño Ready Nations and Disaster Risk Reduction Report Here

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