Zambians, suffering from climate change-induced drought, lock kitchens, guard fields as theft, prostitution levels spike

Water stress coupled with food stress has also led to livestock diseases, with farmers forced to sell off cattle at throwaway prices to afford food
Photo for representation: iStock
Photo for representation: iStock

Devastating levels of hunger following a protracted period of drought have pushed up crime rates in Zambia’s hitherto ‘crime-free’ rural areas. The social condition is unprecedented and a cause for concern, according to observers and victims.

Webster Ntambo, a 35-year-old small-scale farmer of Ntambo Village in Chief Liteta’s area in Chibombo district shared his horrific experience. Already reeling from hunger, he suffered a double tragedy when village thieves broke into his house and stole all he was left with – maize and mielie meal.

“They steal anything, even chickens,” said Ntambo, a father of two. He planted 10 kilogrammes of seed maize with the hope of harvesting enough for consumption and sale but reaped nothing due to drought. “I did not get even a tin of maize, not even a cob to roast. I am now stuck as I don’t have the capital to start anything.”

His 47-year-old sister, Charity Ntambo, who is also the headwoman of the village, said the recent drought is the worst in her memory.

“I have never witnessed this kind of drought before. It is the worst drought I have ever experienced where one can fail to get even one bag of maize,” headwoman Ntambo said.

She planted 20 kilogrammes of seed and applied eight bags of fertilisers, from which she was expecting a yield of 100 x 50 kg bags of maize but got nothing due to drought. “There is serious hunger here. People are trying to survive on garden produce but it has been difficult,” headwoman Ntambo said.

The grave food crisis has forced women and girls into prostitution to afford a meal, increasing the risk of HIV / AIDS, she added. “Women are failing to feed their children,” Ntambo said, adding: 

We are hearing cases of women destroying marriages very frequently and parents are also failing to control the girl-child because of hunger in homes. We are trying hard to control the situation but it is difficult.

For Richard Tomati, 61, a small-scale farmer and mechanic of Liteta village in Chibombo district, the devastating impact of drought is unbearable as it has led not only to widespread hunger but thefts as well.

“In some cases, they are breaking into homes to steal food. By December, I don’t know how it will be,” Tomati said. He now wants to put a grill door on his traditional outdoor kitchen to safeguard household food. 

Beatrice Malata, the chairperson of Shimbilo Multipurpose Cooperative Society in Chibombo district, said her co-operative has not been spared.

“We are witnessing an increase in thefts due to hunger. The police have just arrested a man who stole 24 panels from our cooperative society’s solar hammer mill,” Malata said. “This was unusual, but is now becoming common,” she said.

Victoria Chimfwembe Kaombe, a 72-year-old widow and small-scale farmer from Mwachilele village in Chibombo district, had her three grandchildren taken away from her because she was unable to feed them, leaving her alone.

Usually when she harvests 35 bags of maize (50 kg each), she keeps 10 aside for food and sells the rest to buy other essentials and fertilisers. But this year, she has nothing. Even the 10 kg beans and five kg groundnuts she had planted gave her no produce because of the intense drought. 

Kaombe also said thefts have increased manifold in her village. “They steal anything from mielie meal to chickens, goats and cattle. Those with livestock are not sleeping.”

The elderly woman had to relocate her chickens for safekeeping. She added: 

I am now scared of travelling because they can even steal my blankets. In the past, we could travel and leave our livestock and property safe, but not now.

Martin Sishekanu, an agriculture and climate change expert, acknowledged the adverse impact of drought on farming communities. “Two weeks ago, I was in Munyense in Kapiri Mposhi. People are sleeping in their fields because of fear that their maize crop will be stolen,” he said.

The farmers who planted early managed to get a reasonable yield but have now become a target of theft as most of the others suffered poor crop yield, Sishekanu shared. 

Water stress can also lead to higher cases of livestock diseases as small-scale farmers will be forced to move their animals to places where there is sufficient water, leading to crowding and uncontrolled disease spread, he added. 

The prolonged drought, the scientist noted, is linked to climate change. It has been observed that as climate change continues to progress with minimal mitigation measures, El Nino is expected to become more frequent and intense, according to the expert. 

The climate crisis, he added, has altered many socio-economic factors. “Even with prostitution, in situations where the market linkages have been disrupted, a shortage of income and alternative livelihoods has been driving people to exploit whatever could be at hand for survival.”

As food insecurity looms, especially in the 84 districts declared food insecure, the situation has become so dire that small-scale farmers are resorting to practices that further impoverish them, such as selling livestock at throwaway prices.

This is partly in response to the water stress and loss of pasture, which pose a threat of increased livestock diseases, as well as out of fear of increased cattle rustling.

“I am learning that even cattle have become very cheap in rural areas because people want to find money to buy food,” Sishekanu said.

“If they don’t sell, cattle will either die of disease or be stolen. I had eight cattle which have all died of Corridor disease,” Headwoman Ntambo said.

Winford Kuyokwa, 67, a retired school head teacher now living in Mwachilele village in Chibombo district, is one of the sufferers of the drought’s impact on livestock. “Cattle and goats are dying due to lack of water and pasture. So, we are forced to sell them at throwaway prices as buyers are taking advantage of the situation,” he noted. 

In March this year, President Hakainde Hichilema declared the drought a national disaster and emergency, and announced a wide range of interventions that the government will undertake to ameliorate the impact.

The declaration had been necessitated by the destruction of a million hectares of farmland, which has affected over a million households across the country, said Hichilema.

He said 84 of the country’s 116 districts, including Chibombo, have been affected by the drought. “In view of these challenges, urgent and decisive action is required from all of us,” he said.

“The government, in accordance with the Disaster Management Act 13 of 2010 and other relevant legislation, declared the prolonged dry spell a national disaster and emergency.”

The country has been experiencing a prolonged dry spell coupled with high temperatures, which has affected about 2.2 million hectares of land with a million hectares destroyed.

The United Nations has activated an allocation of up to $5.5 million to support Zambia’s response to an unprecedented drought that has left about 7.5 million people in the 84 districts in need of assistance, with a majority being women and children. 

Funding is dependent on the fulfillment of required formalities by the UN agencies in Zambia, which are collaborating as a unified entity to support the government-led initiatives in delivering humanitarian aid and lifesaving assistance to affected communities, the organisation said. 

The funds will help in providing emergency food aid, distributing clean and safe water, protection and delivering healthcare services to address drought-related health risks, among other needs. 

The support will also help to strengthen resilience in drought-affected communities to mitigate or avoid the humanitarian impacts of the drought and ensure that emergency relief enhances sustainability.

Acting UN resident coordinator in Zambia, Penelope Campbell, has welcomed the support and underscored commitment by the UN in helping Zambia respond to the drought emergency.

The drought has significantly impacted eight (Central, Copperbelt, Eastern, Lusaka, Muchinga, North-Western, Southern and Western) of the country’s 10 provinces. 

The most affected are Western, Southern, Central and Lusaka provinces and the most vulnerable groups directly affected include small-scale farmers that depend on rainfed agriculture, livestock herders and individuals reliant on natural waterbodies and shallow wells.

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