Menacing drought

DROUGHT in any part of the world brings with it acute food shortage and a spiral effect in the production chain that relies on rain-fed agricultural products.

In Zambia and other parts of Africa, maize remains the staple food and is grown mainly by emerging farmers to feed the majority of citizens while the surplus is exported to earn the much-need foreign exchange.

The dry spell which has hit Lusaka, Southern province and other areas has already had a devastating effect on the crops. The unpleasant spectre is baying for contingency measures so that the country does not fall in the hunger trap.

Maize and other crops have started wilting in some parts of Zambia as a result of the dry spell.

In the 2015-16 farming season, Zambia was affected by the shifting weather pattern that resulted in poor yields in some parts of the country.

In April of 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had estimated that Southern Africa’s maize harvest for the 2015-16 season was going to be 15 per cent lower than the average for the previous five years.

In Zambia, during that period, maize production fell from 3.3 million tonnes in the previous harvest to 2.6 million tonnes in 2016. The Government was prompted to impose a ban on export of maize and maize products.

Thus the change in weather patterns started way back and is a global problem which is being tackled on various platforms.

This unfortunate scenario has continued to affect Zambia and agriculture in particular, which is one of the priority sectors.

On Saturday, President Edgar Lungu acknowledged that Government is very much aware of the situation but quickly pointed out that there is enough maize in the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) storage sheds. He made the remarks at the start of his tour of Muchinga province.

This therefore entails that should the country experience a poor yield, the Government will flood the market with grain from the FRA reserve silos.

However, the debilitating impact will mostly haunt emerging farmers whose crop is withering after investing their valuable time, energy and resources this farming season.

Others will be cushioned by insurance cover though.

Meanwhile, it is time Zambian farmers started investing more in drought-resistant crops such as millet, sorghum and cassava. This could grant the country a more permanent solution in the light of constantly shifting weather patterns.

In any case, apart from being drought-resistant, the three types of crops are easier and cheaper to produce yet are nutritious too.

Already, Government’s agriculture policy includes the promotion of crops that can withstand harsher weather conditions; the State must expedite and spread out the process to all parts of the country.

Incentives for drought resistant crops are acutely required to encourage a substantial number of emerging farmers to venture into growing such crops.

In future, the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) must encompass an aspect on crops such as millet, sorghum and cassava.

Agriculture extension officers should be detailed to offer more services and skills for small scale farmers to venture more into growing climate-friendly crops. In fact, they grow well with organic manure usage.

Another aspect which Government can explore is to assist farmers with incentives for irrigation farming. Rain-fed farming is highly risky!

It is also important for farmers to explore conservation farming; the practice of conserving moisture by minimum tillage methods such as ripping, planting in holes with compost similar to tree holes in orchards.

For commercial farmers, irrigation is a quick remedy but they too must venture into growing drought-resistant crops. In fact, maize growing should be done throughout the year and not necessarily during the rain season only.

Most importantly, there is need for more information across the country on the drought, its effects and remedial measures required to forestall food shortages.

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