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After Waiting Nearly 10 Years, Hungry Families in Arid Zimbabwe Thirst for Promised Water

MWENEZI, ZIMBABWE — Thorny trees hardy enough to withstand dry conditions line the road to Chingwizi, an arid area in southeast Zimbabwe.

Mary Shambira watches the setting sun from her homestead, wondering what she will cook for dinner. “We receive little rain and to add to that, the land we have is too small for anyone to have a meaningful harvest,” she says, rising to start a fire to cook for herself and two grandchildren.

The small pots on the fire tell of the food rations she has to make. Three meals a day are a luxury Shambira can no longer afford. Six of her grandchildren used to live with her; but after seeing the difficulties she was having, Shambira’s brother took most of them to live with him.

“I cook once a day because of the scarcity of food. In the morning we cook porridge and then a proper meal in the evening,” she says. Sometimes when she has ingredients for samp, a traditional dish of cowpeas and maize, she will cook that in the morning and the sadza, a maize meal staple, in the evening.

Shambira is among more than 3,000 families who were displaced in 2014 after Tokwe Mukosi dam flooded due to excessive rains. Tokwe Mukosi is Zimbabwe’s second-largest inland artificial dam with a holding capacity of 1.8 billion cubic meters of water (63.5 billion cubic feet).

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Mary Shambira sits with her grandchildren, Elizabeth Chiware, 10, left, and Tatenda Chiware, 8, at her homestead in Chingwizi in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe.

Like many others, Shambira stayed in a transit camp for about four months before being allocated one hectare of land (just shy of 2.5 acres) where she now lives in Chingwizi about 170 kilometers from the dam and 500 kilometers southeast of the capital, Harare, in Masvingo province. The relocation hasn’t been without challenge over the years.

The farmer is one of the thousands of Zimbabweans who remain food insecure despite the government’s reassurance that the country is grain self-sufficient.

About 2.7 million Zimbabweans, 26% of the total population, will be food insecure and require food assistance between January and March this year, according to the 2023 Rural Livelihood Assessment report by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee, a government-led team that coordinates national food and nutrition security issues in the country. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had a higher estimate in its October 2023 brief, saying close to 3.5 million Zimbabweans will be food insecure until March. One of the factors cited is reduced agricultural output in the southern and western provinces.

Food insecurity, according to FAO, refers to when a person doesn’t have regular access to “enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life.” There are different levels of severity, including uncertainty of ability to attain food, compromising food quality and variety, reducing food quantity, skipping entire meals or going days without meals.

According to a Ministry of Agriculture April 2023 report, Mwenezi, the district where Chingwizi lies, produced the least grain sufficient for up to three months after harvest. Famine Early Warning System Network, an organization that provides early analysis on acute food insecurity around the world, also notes some parts of south, east and west Zimbabwe are food insecure despite good rainfall in most parts of the country during the 2022-2023 farming season that ended in September. The situation is more dire for communities in Chingwizi, which rely on food aid for a majority of the year because of poor rainfall.

Prince Kuipa, an agricultural economist who is the operations director at the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, says the challenge in Chingwizi is that it’s in a region with minimal and erratic rainfall.

Food insecurity in Zimbabwe

Like Shambira, Samuel Mudzungudzi, a village head, says that since he relocated from Tokwe Mukosi, he has never had a harvest good enough to meet his family’s needs. “Even when we receive good rains, the land that I have is too small to have a meaningful harvest that can last for a year,” he says.

Maize is the staple food in the country and the most grown and consumed compared to other small grains. In all of Zimbabwe’s provinces, maize yields are lowest in Masvingo, where Chingwizi is located, at 0.54 metric tons per hectare (about 0.24 ton per acre). This is lower than 1.83 tons per hectare (0.82 ton per acre) in Mashonaland East and an average yield of 1.17 tons per hectare (0.52 ton per acre) throughout the country.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Homes in Chingwizi, a rural area in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe.

According to estimates in the Ministry of Agriculture report, however, Zimbabwe produced nearly 2.3 million metric tons (2.5 million tons) of maize in the last growing season, a 58% increase from the previous year. This would be enough maize to meet the country’s own demand and have a bit left over to export. But a more recent estimate from the United States Department of Agriculture paints a bleaker picture. USDA estimates from June 2023 show that Zimbabwe may have produced just 1.5 million metric tons (1.6 million tons) of maize, according to the agency’s office in Pretoria, South Africa.

Life after the dam disaster

Shambira remembers her life before relocating to Chingwizi.

“I had land which was more than 5 hectares and I used to grow cotton, maize, sorghum and groundnuts. I used to have enough for my family and could sell some of the produce for money,” Shambira says.

Though where she lived before the disaster is also a semi-arid area that receives minimal rainfall and is sometimes prone to drought, rainfall patterns there are better than those in her current home of Chingwizi. Shambira also lived next to the Mukosi river, whose water she could use on her farm.

Shambira says when they had good rains she would harvest more than 1 metric ton (1.1 tons) of sorghum in addition to a variety of other crops.

This past season in Chingwizi, she harvested only two 50-kilogram bags of sorghum (a little over 220 pounds total). This is less than a tenth of the sorghum she used to get when she lived next to the dam.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Samuel Mudzungudzi at his homestead in Chingwizi, a rural area in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe.

Shambira trades some of the sorghum for vegetables. “To get a bundle of leafy vegetables, I have to trade 2 kilograms of sorghum,” she says.

Last year, Mudzungudzi and his family harvested 200 kilograms (about 441 pounds) of sorghum that lasted two months.

Feleni Chauke, chief of Mwenezi district in Masvingo province, agrees that food insecurity is rife in Chingwizi. He says that even when there is good rainfall, the community relies on food handouts because they do not have enough land for farming.

The food aid is provided through the government’s social welfare department. Each family member is entitled to about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of grain per month. But food aid that was to be received between August and October 2023 didn’t come until December, sources say. Prior to that, food aid was last received in April.

What is the government doing?

Mudzungudzi says before they were moved, government representatives at the time made promises. “They said they were removing us from the dam basin, and water will benefit us through irrigation programs. But almost 10 years on, nothing has been done,” Mudzungudzi says.

Chauke says they’ve been waiting for the irrigation program to start for a long time.

“We have had meetings with government for that irrigation plan to take place. A few of the people who represented the community [in 2022] visited a similar community in Plumtree that was displaced by floods where the irrigation model had been implemented by ARDA [Agricultural and Rural Development Authority]. It is almost coming to take off very soon,” Chauke says.

He hopes the program will make the community self-reliant, “rather than depending on handouts every year.”

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Samuel Mudzungudzi holds sorghum in Chingwizi, a rural area in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe.

Isaac Mutambara, the district development coordinator for Mwenezi, says the government will provide water and arable land for the community in Chingwizi.

“An extra 6 hectares will be provided for irrigation purposes for each family,” he says. Mutambara says a lot of groundwork is already underway, such as infrastructure design, and he is optimistic the plan will soon be implemented. “All the logistics have been done and very soon they will have access to water and be self-sufficient.”

Resilience of the community

Clarietar Makaure, Mudzungudzi’s wife, says to survive in the drylands, people have to be innovative.

“I tried to grow vegetables, but the plants died because the water is not conducive for watering plants. It’s salty,” she says.

So the mother of four walks for hours to an area with better conditions where they have put up gardens.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Samuel Mudzungudzi walks through a garden that dried out due to salty water in Chingwizi, a rural area in Mwenezi district, Zimbabwe.

“I walk for about two and half hours to Runde River, where I grow leafy vegetables, carrots and onions. I go once or twice a week to water and weed the garden. It’s not for the weak and fainthearted,” she says, smiling.

Shambira, who suffers from leg pain, and other villagers who can’t walk long distances rely on people like Makaure to buy vegetables. They trade grains for vegetables. She feels their lives would be better if they had enough land and water.

Makaure also dedicates some of her time in this dry and hot area to making reed mats that she exchanges for grain or other groceries.

“When you have a family to feed, you must find ways … to ensure the family survives because what we harvest is not enough. I always ask God for strength each day on what I can do to survive,” she says.



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