Zimbabwe Farms, Still Reeling From Drought, Now Battered by Rain

Farmers in Zimbabwe, emerging from the region’s worst drought in at least two decades, are being threatened with a second year of losses as heavy rains damage corn and tobacco crops.

by Brian Latham and Godfrey Marawanyika

A crop review is under way to assess the damage from the unseasonably heavy rain and farmers will probably need extra fertilizer to help harvests survive, Deputy Agriculture Minister David Marapira said in an interview on Monday.

Farming output in the southern African nation was crippled by last year’s drought and as many as four million Zimbabweans remain on food aid, according to the government. The heavy rains are expected to continue for at least another week, Zimbabwe’s meteorological department said on state radio.

The tobacco industry is seeing damage across all growing areas and carrying out its own crop assessment, said Andrew Matibiri, chief executive officer of the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board.

Tobacco, Gold

Tobacco was Zimbabwe’s second-largest export earner after gold in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, according to the state’s trading body, ZimTrade. The crop accounted for 21.1 percent of exports and the country’s earnings from tobacco sales rose 7 percent to $914 million in the 12 months through Dec. 8.

“There is a lot of false ripening on the crop because of the incessant rains and that puts severe pressure on the farmer to quickly harvest,” he said. Humid conditions are also prolonging tobacco-curing time. False ripening is caused by the leaching of soil nutrients due to heavy rain. The leaf yellows, which looks like ripening, but is actually a nutrient deficiency.

Road Damage

The rains and related flood danger are likely to worsen, between now and the middle of February, the Zimbabwe Meteorological Department said in an e-mailed statement.

While authorities are still assessing the extent of the damage to infrastructure, repairs to roads and bridges from flooding could cost millions of dollars, Sibusisiwe Ndlovu, the acting director of the government’s Civil Protection Unit, said in an interview. The CPU is urging people in the worst affected areas to move to higher ground, she said.

Zimbabwe’s Civil Protection Unit, a government body, co-ordinates rescue efforts and preparedness in the event of natural disasters like flooding, working with local and national authorities to minimize harm.

The country’s farms last experienced such high levels of rain during a growing season in 1999, said Wonder Chabikwa, president of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union.

The situation is “hopeless,” Stenford Chidakwa, a farmer in the Centenary district, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of the capital, Harare, said by phone. “My tobacco has turned yellow and my corn has been knocked over by heavy rain and wind.”

Zimbabwe produced 1.3 million tons of corn last year, short of its 2.2 million ton annual requirements, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

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