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Surviving El Nino drought Pt 1: What farmers should keep in mind?

By Steve Ephraem

Driving past Biriiri communal lands in Chimanimani via the Chimanimani-Wengezi Highway, one is greeted by a sorry state of crops that are wilting and some have also wilted. Only one field just after Bumba towards Nhedziwa is showing a sign of hope. The region has been affected by drought.

El Nino induced droughts are repeatedly bringing tears on the faces of communal farmers who depend on rains for farming in the Lowveld areas of Chipinge and Chimanimani. The droughts translate to food insecurity in the region.

El Nino refers to a warming of the ocean surface, or above-average sea surface temperatures that periodically develop across the east-central equatorial Pacific. The warm ocean surface rises the atmosphere which allows moisture-rich air to rise and develop water, in the central and eastern tropical.

The El Nino induced droughts during the current 2023-2024 farming season have seriously affected the two Lowveld areas.

It’s a trend for most farmers especially in the Chipinge Lowveld that they grow hybrid maize for a staple food despite the agricultural ministry encouraging them to return to the basics of growing small grains.

It is interesting to note that some farmers have already heed the call for growing small grain using organic methods, but their numbers, especially in Chipinge, are just a drop in an ocean. A significant number is found in Chimanimani.

Those who are positive about growing organic small grains are participating to programmes spearheaded by organisations who promote the concept of agroecology such as Towards Sustainable Use of Resources Organisation (TSURO), Participatory Organic Research & Extension Training (PORET), Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT), Valley of Hope (VOH), Viable Action (VA) and Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum (ZIMSOFF).

As farmers are coping with the current drought, it is wise for them to keep in mind that El Nino shall always re-appear periodically in the future.

What should they keep in mind?

Crop Selection

It has proven that planting drought-resistant crops and their true to type varieties helps during drought times. It is helpful if farmers willingly return to the basics of growing traditional seeds using organic means. Traditional seeds that are true to type (not modified) tend to require less water in order for them to mature.

Crop diversity

It is good for farmers in the two Lowveld regions not to depend on one type of crop each season. They should introduce two or more crops in one field in order to reduce risks of total crop failure in drought times. In adding to, say sorghum, a farmer can put cow peas, round nuts, ground nuts or any other drought-resistant one.

Water harvesting

In a normal rain season, the Lowveld usually receives rainfall ranging from 300mm and 400mm per annum. It is difficult these days to reach 300mm per annum due to climate change. It is therefore imperative for farmers to do water harvesting in their fields. Rain water harvesting also helps to improve the water table.

Soil health

Keeping the soil health shall help to feed the crops both with high-quality nutrients and good moisture. Practices that increase organic matter to the soil help improve soil’s water retention and reduce moisture loss. This can be done by introducing dry mulching using leaves, grass or dry plants. Live mulching using crops to cover the soil is helpful. Practices of no-tillage such as Pfumvudza may not fail farmers.