Some villagers in the arid Hwange District are leaving their homes to scavenge for coke in Hwange Town, abandoning their chores including market gardening and farming in rainy seasons due to low rains and yields at a time studies have shown that temperatures have risen from a maximum of 25 degrees Celcius in the 1980s to around 35 degrees Celcius in recent year, as the effects of climate change bite.
To aggravate the situation, the little crops that survive are often at the mercy of elephants, which leave the giant Hwange National Park in search of food and water in neighboring villages.
The rural dwellers are bearing the brunt of climate change amid rising temperatures, reduced rainfall, heat waves, and flash floods among other experiences.
An investigation supported by the Voluntary Media Council Of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) and Fredrick Nauman Foundation (FNF) revealed that coke scavengers, who are mostly women, are selling the product for as little as US$3 per 10kg bag despite risking their lives searching for the black rock.
It is illegal and dangerous but the women say they have no choice.
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Shylet Ncube said rains in the district are so low such that any form of agriculture is of no use.
She left her family in Dinde village in 2012 to stay in Madumabisa compound Number Two, close to Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL) in Hwange Town, where she is scavenging for coke and selling it to the black market.
HCCL has for years been dumping coke piles near Madumabisa Village forming coke piles, which have become artificial hills.
“Some of our friends have been trapped in coke piles and died, but we have no option but to sell it because we have nothing to eat,” she said
“I have a child who needs to be taken care of. I left him with my mother in the village to come and hustle for a living.”
Greater Hwange Resident Trust coordinator and an environmentalist, Fidelis Chima confirmed the tragic loss of women who die while scavenging coke.
“We have about five cases of women who died after they got trapped in coke piles in recent years. The challenge we have is that these coke piles are not barricaded; anyone can easily walk in there, even children are at risk” he said.
The nearby HCCL denied putting up coke piles there, citing they have not been processing coal for years now.
“We are not responsible for whatever is happening. Our battery died in 2010 and since then we have not been processing coal,” said Dr Beauty Mutombe cooperation’s manager of the HCCL.
She said the question should be directed to other companies like the South Mining company, a Chinese owned, who are also processing coal.
The South mining company was reached for a comment but they could not send a response back.
Ncube said before she came to Madumabisa, she and her mother used to grow enough crops like sorghum which could sustain them throughout the year. She said on average they could get 10 bags per season.
In good years like in 1997, she would sell the excess crops to send her children to school. She however said it had become difficult to sustain herself on farming due to low rainfall.
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While the potential for agriculture is low due to unfavorable climatic conditions, people in Hwange say in some years they were able to get enough harvests to sustain their families although not enough to sell to the Grain Marketing Board.
John Mupuro, a meteorologist with the Meteorological Service Department (MSD) revealed there would be no joy for Hwange villagers again this year.
“We measure using ranges, we have above normal, normal and below normal. This time around in Hwange which falls under Matabeleland North province, it is showing that the rainfall is below normal to normal,” Mapuro said.
Climate change is expected to reduce effective rainfall by 10 to 20% while temperature which is already at 35°C will increase, according to MSD reports. Effective rainfall is expected to be less than normal.
According Martin Jabson, an Agriculture Technical Extension Services officer, this means, “the maize-based mixed farming system will suffer a reduction in expected output per hectare which will further reduce the number of years in which smallholder agricultural communities will be able to sustain themselves from the food and livestock production system”.
A 2021 Ministry of Environment, Tourism and Hospitality industry’s ‘Revised Idea Note’ project on reforestation of forest landscape in identified biodiversity hotspots in North Western Zimbabwe, observed that Hwange used to receive an average rainfall of 450mm-600mm per year during the 1980s.
The ministry however says there has been notable changes due to the impact of climate change and global warming.
The Meteorological Department (2012) recorded a highest monthly maximum temperature of 33,5 Celsius in October and 5.8 Celsius minimum temperature in July. This is in contrast with a range of between 20 degrees Celsius and 25 degrees’ Celsius maximum temperature which dominated the region in the 1980s and part of 1990s.
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The department says Hwange receives on a daily basis an average maximum temperature of 34.19˚C, minimum temperature of 33.96˚C. The high temperatures have often resulted in heat waves and heat stress in the region.
The temperatures soar higher during the summer accompanied with steady winds, but sweltering effects. Worldwide severe heat waves have caused catastrophic crop failures, thousands of deaths from hyperthermia, and widespread power outages due to increased use of air conditioning.
A 2020 study by Everson Ndlovu, an academic and a lecturer at the National University of Science and Technology, Bulawayo shows that annual precipitation levels in Zimbabwe have gone down in the past two decades, with Matabeleland North Province experiencing an annual average of between 350 mm and 500 mm, against a national average of 500 mm – 750 mm.
A resident of Madumabisa Village, Petronella Moyo said, “I am so worried that we will all die from these strong heat waves. Rainfall is becoming very low and we are no longer able to grow even vegetables to eat with our families because we do not have water”.
Moyo also said the weather patterns are becoming extreme and unpredictable because of climate change.
“Over the last four years, even when the rest of the country was receiving normal rains, Hwange was dry,” she said.
“It is becoming worse every year. Droughts, flash floods and heavy rains are common during the rainy season. Last year was a bit better, but not everyone had a good harvest. we are worried that this year it is going to be worse since it was predicted that there is going to be low rainfall”
Rosemary Shoko, who stays close to Deka river in Chachachunda village said it was difficult to sustain her garden because of the lack of water.
“Our harvests are no longer the same, we rely on rains but when they are gone we fetch from Deka river but now the water levels are going low,” she said.
Shoko said the agricultural season has shortened compared to the past.
“The starting dates of rains have shifted from October to late November and sometimes to December. Moreover, the magnitude and frequency of dry spells that occur within a season have increased. These mid-season droughts affect critical growth stages of crops, which in some cases results in complete crop failure,” she said.
Barnabas Dube who stays in Nengasha village, near the Hwange National Park said other than the low rains and heat, villagers also have to contend with wild animals, especially elephants, as they destroy crops time and again.
He said Dube said elephants were moving from the game park to compete for food and water with humans.
“The seasons are changing, here in Nengasha we are now relying on shallow wells so the elephants are also coming for those shallow wells and at the same time our crops are being destroyed,” said Dube.
Hwange National Park is the biggest wildlife reserve in Zimbabwe. It was declared a game reserve in 1928 and it stretches over 14 600 square kilometres. It is home to more than 100 mammal and 400 bird species.
During the dry season, the competition for food and water intensifies, resulting between human and wildlife. For years, the elephants have been straying into residential areas around the park. The invasion has led to loss of crops on farmland and lives.
The conflict has worsened over the years as the elephant population in the game park has increased to more than 50 000, far beyond its holding capacity of 10 000, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management (Zimparks) says.
Water sources in Hwange National Park often dry in August leaving Zimparks to pump water into pans for wildlife consumption. Zimparks has 105 solar powered boreholes in the park, but has been failing to provide adequate water because of the low water table.
Percy Sibanda, from the Jambezi area of Hwange, which is further away from the Hwange National Park says villagers have toiled under the brutal sun for years without much success.
She said every season produces only scorched maize fields with little or no returns despite the effort and hard work farmers would have put in.
She said inconsistent rainfall patterns and arid conditions have resulted in perennial low harvests in the area.
Sibanda said farmers stubbornly persisted with farming maize but were gradually shifting to small grains.
“Small grains have changed our focus incredibly following the development and introduction of sorghum and pearl millet (SMIP) technology by the Institute of Crop In Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT),” she said.
ICRISAT, an international agricultural research organisation with headquarters in India, has developed the technology, research infrastructure development and trained several scientists under the SMIP programme.
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