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More than a buzzword? Resilience to climate change in Zimbabwe

Bad maize

Climate change-induced disasters will keep on coming, as sure as the sun rises. But rather than governments and aid agencies swinging into belated – often chaotic – action after they’ve struck, the smarter move is to strengthen communities by building their resistance ahead of time.

It’s cheaper, faster, and devolves more control to the affected communities. But while resilience has long been a buzzword among aid agencies and governments alike, it’s difficult to gauge yet how effective the measures have been.

Zimbabwe is a good place both to highlight the need to develop people’s resistance to “shocks” and to illustrate how difficult it is to put that idea into practice.

Agriculture is a key sector of the economy. It employs 60-70 percent of the population, contributes to about 40 percent of total export earnings, and, in a good year, covers the country’s cereal needs.

But Zimbabwean agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and therefore vulnerable to climate change-induced drought. An El Niño event in 2015 has produced two consecutive seasons of failed rains. The cumulative result is that more than four million people are in need of food aid over the next three months, until the 2017 harvest comes in.

Worse to come

And the forecast is for worse weather to come. A 2013 study predicted that between now and 2080, Zimbabwe will suffer steeply reduced rainfall, which will hit production of drought-sensitive maize, further denting food security.

The trend has been clear for more than a decade. But the government and aid partners seem to have made the short-term calculation that the next season will be better, preferring to resort to emergency relief when disaster strikes than to spend on longer-term solutions.

Wilson Sauto, 38, a home based counsellor in Kamunhukamwe village, Nyanga. Zimbabwe

For the government, the primary reason is it’s broke. Last year, it struggled to pay even public sector teachers and nurses.

“Zimbabwe has for more than a decade faced numerous economic, environmental, and political pressures that have probably proved to be too much for the government to effectively promote resilience,” said climate researcher Leonard Unganai.

“It is evidently aware that it has to do something, but the challenges could have also overwhelmed it.”

In almost every year out of the last 15, Zimbabwe has been forced to import grain. More than 200,000 metric tonnes of maize was imported in 2016. That’s well short of the 1.7 million metric tonnes the country actually needed, but seemingly all the cash-strapped government could afford.

The burden has therefore fallen on its aid partners. Zimbabwe received $177.7 million in aid funding in 2016, but that represents only roughly 50 percent of the overall appeal. Clearly, charity has its limits.

“Traditional approaches to humanitarian and development assistance have not been very successful in minimising the impacts of disasters on communities,” said UN Development Programme Resident Representative Bishow Parajuli.

What are needed are interventions that “enhance communities’ and individuals’ preparedness and resilience,” he said at last year’s launch of the Zimbabwe Resilience Building Fund (ZRBF).

“Building the resilience of communities helps them to be prepared to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from crises and disasters in a timely, efficient, and sustainable manner,” David Phiri, Southern Africa coordinator for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told IRIN.


Resilience building is not a new phenomenon. It’s a fashionable phrase included in just about every humanitarian and development document. It has institutional support expressed through the 2005-2015 Hyogo Framework of Action, and its successor, the Sendai Framework.

But while the goals of addressing the underlying vulnerabilities that lead to humanitarian crisis are laudable, it has proved difficult to fully harness as an organising principle.

Its grassroots focus means it requires time-consuming local consultations; needs astute analysis as to why people are at risk; and then inter-agency collaboration to help deliver the appropriate interventions. This is more bespoke than the usual cookie-cutter approach to aid.

“Many donors traditionally fund either emergency or development initiatives, meaning that resilience… tends to be underfunded,” Phiri explained. “However, donor interest is now slowly building towards supporting resilience building projects.”

There is indeed a raft of initiatives under way in Zimbabwe.

Development agencies jointly launched the ZRBF in May in conjunction with the government and with support from the European Union and the UK Department for International Development.


WFP food warehouse
WFP food warehouse

It includes a multi-donor fund to enable partners to improve the adaptive, absorptive, and transformative capacities of communities, and a disaster risk financing mechanism to promote reliable prediction and management of climate-induced shocks.

It also entails identifying vulnerable communities to target with the appropriate resilience measures.

Does it work?

Other initiatives include the 2016-20 Zimbabwe United Nations Development Assistance Framework, which includes a resilience building component to help strengthen household food and nutrition security.

USAID is also involved in development and food assistance programmes worth $100 million over the next five years aimed at addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity and malnutrition.

WFP is also training farmers on climate change adaptation, including encouraging the adoption of small grains and short-season varieties, and the FAO is scaling up its irrigation support programme and its climate smart agriculture programmes.

None of these schemes is a magic bullet. One obvious constraint with such interventions is that they reach only a limited number of communities because of funding and resource constraints.

Phiri also bemoaned the conservatism of farmers, which he believed was one reason for the slow adoption of resilience initiatives.

“This [slowness] requires patience and commitment in demonstrating the benefits of appropriate food production technologies that help communities in mitigating the threats and risks,” he told IRIN.

It’s too early to tell if these interventions will eventually work. But they do offer an alternative to traditional disaster responses, which step in only after communities have already lost assets and livelihoods.


TOP PHOTO: Blight-hit maize, by Eva-Lotta Jansson/IRIN

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