The drought in Zambia is causing starvation, a power crisis and threatening the Victoria Falls

An estimated 2.3 million people in Zambia are on the brink of starvation, threatened by a severe drought caused by dwindling rainfall, which its president Edgar Lungu has explicitly linked to climate change, though some scientists add that we should be cautious to make this connection. The catastrophe has also curbed hydropower at the Kariba Dam, affecting over 81

An estimated 2.3 million people in Zambia are on the brink of starvation, threatened by a severe drought caused by dwindling rainfall, which its president Edgar Lungu has explicitly linked to climate change, though some scientists add that we should be cautious to make this connection. The catastrophe has also curbed hydropower at the Kariba Dam, affecting over 81 per cent of electricity generation, as well as nearing the world-famous Victoria Falls one step closer to drying up.

In particular, Zambia’s maize-growing Southern and Western provinces have been hit hard by droughts, a situation that has prompted the government to impose an export ban on the grain. Local media reports show that the catastrophe is worsening food insecurity in several rural areas, where villagers are coping by pounding hard mungongo nuts, as well as eating wild fruits, grasses, roots and poisonous plants to survive hunger. Meanwhile, Zambia’s neighbours Zimbabwe, Namibia and Malawi, among others, have declared a food emergency.

Read more: Drought in Zambia, maize output could fall by half due to unpredictable weather

Edgar Lungu maize seeds planting zambia drought
President Edgar Lungu (centre-left) with farmer Norah Mubiana (centre-right) planting maize seeds during the national launch of the 2019-2020 planting season in Chikankata district on 7 December © Kacha Miyoba

The drought in Zambia and the politics of hunger

Despite calls urging the Zambian government to declare a food emergency amid the worst droughts in nearly four decades, the government insists the country has enough food and the situation is under control. “You don’t declare disasters willy-nilly just because everybody else is doing it,” government spokeswoman Dora Siliya said in an interview. “At the moment we believe we have enough food in our reserve and we just need to redistribute it in the country. The president has been very clear that no Zambian is going to die of hunger.”

But critics accuse the government of playing the “politics of the belly” at the expense of people who desperately need food. Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development, the country’s largest opposition group, recently moved to declare the hunger situation a national disaster – rousing widespread anger on the part of the ruling Patriotic Front who questioned what authority Hichilema had to make a such a declaration when he’s not in government. But a few days afterwards, the United Nations called on humanitarian relief organisations to apply for funding to provide relief food assistance to drought-hit parts of Zambia.

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UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema (left) donates mealie to the poor in Bauleni township in Lusaka, Zambia © UPND Media Team

People surviving on wild fruits and roots

“Before communities could recover from the impacts of flood episodes that characterised the 2017-18 season, the 2018-19 season has been hit by drought – says Kaitano Chungu, Secretary General of the Zambia Red Cross –. The successive mixture of drought and flooding has been catastrophic for many communities”.

“In most of the affected areas there isn’t enough drinking water, which means that people and animals, both livestock and wildlife, are having to use the same water spots. This is unacceptable as it exposes people to diseases and creates a heightened risk of animal attacks,” she added.

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Local women beating corn cobs to prepare maize in Bungoma, Kenya © Brent Stirton/ Getty Images

Climate change is causing Kariba to dry up

The world’s largest man-made reservoir, that of the Kariba Dam – which has provided electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe for over five decades – hasn’t been spared by the droughts. According to the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), in recent months the inflows of water from the Zambezi River that feed it have dwindled to a third compared to a year ago.

The southern African nation is suffering a power crisis, with the state utility company Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation Limited deciding to raise loadshedding to 20 hours as recently as November. According to recent data published on the ZRA website, the dam has dropped to around 10 per cent of its capacity from 57 per cent in December last year.

Energy Minister Matthew Nkhuwa believes the Congo River, the continent’s second longest, could hold the solution to the country’s power crisis. “If we can just dig a canal and get the water from there, with the permission from the head of state of Congo, power rationing could be a thing of the past,” he said. But Arthur Chapman, a hydrologist who recently published a study on the impact of climate change on the Zambezi’s hydropower production, argued that even if the heads of state agree to the idea, the plan can’t be carried out because the Zambezi is at a higher elevation than the Congo River.

Victoria Falls could be lost

One of the world’s natural wonders, the mighty Victoria Falls – Africa’s biggest –, which lie between Zambia and Zimbabwe, could be lost forever unless urgent action is taken to tackle the climate crisis, Zambian president Edgar Lungu warned. “I think there’s still hope, but only if rich countries do more to mitigate the results of global warming and help less well-off nations cope,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, tour operators in the country have started circulating the hashtag #VictoriaFallsIsNotDry to counter recent press reports claiming the waterfalls have dried up. In a brief statement, the operators said the water level on the Zambezi hasn’t yet dropped below that of the 1995 drought and has in fact risen most recently.

The Zambian government has been urged to adopt environmentally friendly measures to contribute to curbing the rapid rate of climate change by Sérgio Dos Ceus Nelson, Executive Director and founder of the Association of Environmental and Human Rights Journalists. “We’re calling for real radical action against the aggressive burning of fossil fuels for power generation, industrial activities and transport. We advise the government to use alternative energies, so we can mitigate the various effects of climate change,” he stated.

Sérgio Dos Ceus Nelson zambia drought climate change fossil fuels
Sérgio Dos Ceus Nelson urged the Zambian government to adopt aggressive measure against the burning of fossil fuels © Association of Environmental and Human Rights Journalists (AJADH)

Temperatures increasing in southern Africa

According to experts at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, temperatures in southern Africa have risen dramatically by twice as much as the global average. “We estimate that, based on current emissions, temperatures in the regional interior could climb 5 to 6 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century, well above the anticipated global temperature rise. Warming of that magnitude would be potentially disastrous,” it warns.

Therefore, as is currently being discussed at the COP25 climate change conference in Madrid, there is the need for rich countries to support poorer countries like Zambia to deal with the causes of climate change, like supporting preventing deforestation and reducing carbon emissions. Without forgetting the urgency of preparing for its effects, for instance by giving poor farmers climate-resilient crops that can grow in hotter, drier conditions, or implementing early-warning systems in areas vulnerable to flooding.

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