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Zimbabwe, March 2016: The impact of drought and hunger in rural areas

© UNICEF/2016/Richard Nyamanhindi
The El Nino weather phenomenon lasts some months, but the effects on children will last years – already school authorities are seeing the impact of the drought on declining school attendance and concentration levels.

By Richard Nyamanhindi

Drought is nothing new to John Chauke (38) and his family from Mwenezi District in Masvingo Province of Zimbabwe, but this season has been one of the most disappointing across the country for nearly a decade.

Across Zimbabwe, more than 2,8 million families are struggling to cope with food insecurity, lack of water, disease and threats to their education and safety. After two years of erratic rainfall and drought one of the most powerful El Niño weather events for 50 years is wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods of many vulnerable families.

“In the past, the rains were better, and you could get something from the land,” says John. “But now, we have planted more than three times but still we have got nothing from the land.”

But a lack of food is just one of the problems. Drought has caused a domino effect of difficulties for families like John’s, and there is no easy solution in sight.

Early marriage and rising food prices

The impact of El Niño has been felt most acutely in terms of the extensive crop failure across the country. The outlook is disturbing with still little or no rain falling in affected areas and the next window for planting has already closed. Given that maize stocks among many households are already depleted – and food prices are high – there is grave concern for the ability of children and their families, who are already struggling to feed themselves and continue to cope until the next harvest in 2017.

During the 2014/15 agriculture season, in desperation for food after their relocation from a transitional refugee camp at Chingwizi where they were relocated following floods in Masvingo, John says his elder brother living a few kilometres from his village agreed to a paltry dowry of a few goats for his oldest daughter, 15, to be married to a local man twice her age.

John says that circumstances pressured the family to accept lobola (dowry), and it seemed to make sense then. It meant one less mouth to feed, food and livestock for the family, and maybe a better situation for their daughter. But he says his brother’s daughter, is now pregnant — and still hungry. John fears the same fate for his daughter and others in the community.

“Often, we are very hungry and we have to make do with just one meal a day. Maize prices have gone up. A 20 litre bucket of maize for example now costs $8 up from $4 at the end of 2015," John says. “It is very painful when you see your children go hungry, especially when you have no money to buy food.”

Not only is the drought risking the health of families but the lives of girls in rural Zimbabwe who are marrying at a very young age.

Dying animals and reduced opportunities

The worsening drought has seen water holes drying up and pasture dwindling , leaving farmers like John unable to feed their animals – and unable to sell them for much either.

“Water sources have dried up and we are drinking from the same reservoirs with our cattle. Two of my cattle died last year,” says John. Now, the family is only left with one cow.

According the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2015 the country lost nearly 20,000 cattle. Masvingo alone lost more than three thousand cattle.

The aching hunger and desire for educating his children drives John to continue finding ways to earn money while the drought gets worse. He sometimes does part-time work at the nearby Triangle Sugar Plantation so that he can buy maize to feed his family. Unfortunately, the plantation has been scaling down on casual workers due the effects of the drought.

Feeding hungry children and reduced school attendance

The El Nino weather phenomenon lasts some months, but the effects on children will last years – already school authorities are seeing the impact of the drought on declining school attendance and concentration levels.

“Although we are receiving one 50kg bag of maize per every two months from the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Services the food is not enough for my family of six,” John says.

Whenever he can, John buys beans and maize to prepare one meal a day – usually supper. A wild, bitter Amarula fruit, and leaves from the thorny bushes near their home provides another option. But besides being dangerous if poorly prepared, the fruit is only edible if boiled for 12 hours — with water that is now difficult to obtain.

The infrequency and lack of consistent nutrition in their diet is affecting the children. They have stopped begging for food, knowing there is none. “When there is no food, they do not ask,” says John. “They are now used to living like that.”

Their five year old attending a nearby school sometimes does so without eating, and spends the whole day without food. Information from real time monitoring shows that there is a correlation between attendance and the level of food security with school authorities in Masvingo reporting attendance rates of just below 70 per cent while the national average is almost 90 per cent.

Health concerns

John’s last born child, Ruvarashe, 3, is often sick, and the other children lack energy.

The family’s tent is small and stuffy, too hot to sleep inside. The children sometimes sleep outside, the adjacent hut they were sleeping in fell down, and there is always the worry about the security of their few possessions. Outside, mosquitos are a menace. Mwenezi is a high malaria infection zone.

The drought situation has resulted in reduced water yields from the few functioning boreholes exacerbating the risk to water-borne diseases, especially diarrhea and cholera.

John says his wife is careful to boil water from the river before drinking it to prevent illness, but there simply is not enough water for bathing or cleaning.

“The children normally bathe once a week. My wife left hours ago to search for water and I am not sure when she will be back,” says John.

John's resignation and dwindling hope is evident in many other rural folk around the country.

What is UNICEF doing?

UNICEF is working closely with the other UN agencies, the Government and Non-Governmental Organizations in the ten worst affected El Niño districts, working to ensure that affected women and children are assisted in the areas of nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, HIV and AIDS, social and child protection, and education.

For example, UNICEF has already procured 11,000 boxes of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and 1,000 boxes of Ready-to-Use Supplementary Food for treating children with moderate malnutrition. In addition, in the area of water and sanitation, UNICEF is rehabilitating boreholes in water stressed areas where people are accessing safe and clean water. With funding from the German government, UNICEF is planning to provide cash grants to satellite schools to provide school meals among many other things.

El Niño is the warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific. Currently, it occurs every two to seven years and can last between six and 18 months.



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