A review of early warning: The 1992 drought disaster in Zimbabwe

M. S. Pawadyira1, S. Ndlovu2
Department of Civil Protection, P. Bag 7706, Causway, Harare, Zimbabwe.
Tel. : 1+263-14-727096, 2+263-14-791478, Fax: 1+263-14-703715, 2+263-703717

Meteorological studies have shown that Zimbabwe like the rest of Southern Africa has cyclic fluctuations of wet and dry spells. Historically the country has suffered severe droughts during 1895/96, 1946/47, 1967/68, 1972/73 and 1982/83. During the 1991/92 rainfall season the country received about half the average annual rainfall resulting in the most severe drought in living memory.

A food security warning system has been in place for some time in the country. The National Early Warning Unit (NEWU) was established in July 1987. Its objective is to provide information on the existing food security situation and to enhance the country’s capability of advance crop fore-casting so that timely interventions are initiated to counter inadequate food supplies. NEWU is complimented by the SADC Regional Early Warning Unit (REWU). In addition a sub-regional climate diagnostic centre was set up in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 1989. It has a sub-centre in Harare. Its aim is to provide a co-ordinated regional approach at minimising and reducing the effects of drought in the region. REWU publishes a food security bulletin quarterly and NEWU’s publication is monthly. A review of NEWU’s. monthly security bulletins for the year preceding the disaster, that is, 1991 demonstrates a serial built up to the disaster in 1992.

The January 1991 Bulletin indicated that the closing stock of maize (the country’s staple cereal) for the 1990/1991 marketing year was only 6% less than the previous marketing year and adequate for five month average consumption. The agrometeorological conditions by the end of January 1991 were, however, less than satisfactory. The east of the country had received 40% of normal rainfall and although the south had received above the average in the month, this could not make up for the earlier drier months. Only a small fraction of the country had received 60% of normal rainfall. Kwekwe, Chegutu, Chivhu, Plumtree and Masvingo’s water supply levels were reported as critical, while Mutare, Gweru, Beitbridge, Bindura and Karoi were identified as towns likely to suffer water shortage before the start of the next rain season. 68% of the total communal areas were expected to face a cereal deficit. The adverse agrometeorological conditions were further reflected in February 1991 Bulletin which shows the crop forecast of a maize yield of 18.5% less than the previous year.

The second crop forecast in March 1991 indicated that the 1990/1991 crop year was lower than a three year average from 1987/88 to 1990/1991. Signs of the deteriorating food security situation became more apparent in the July 1991 Bulletin which warned that the maize stock levels would be at an all time low by December 1991 if the then current low intake of maize, the increasing commercial sales and the export of maize continued. The August 1991 Bulletin indicated that the stock levels of maize at GMB were 61% lower compared to the same month in 1990. The September 1991 Bulletin reported that the ongoing Drought Relief Programme distributed a record level of 1300 MT of maize, which was 34% higher than the corresponding month the previous year. The October 1991 Bulletin reported that the GMB would import 150,000 metric tonnes of maize. This amount was not adequate to meet the requirements of the rest of the marketing year. The Drought Relief's requirements continued to increase in October 1991. The bulletin also warned of a zero maize closing stock at 1 April 1992 to consider a declaration of a State of Disaster. The GMB signed an agreement to import 100,000 MT of maize in November 1991 according to the bulletin of the same month, but only 3200 MT had arrived in the country by the end of December 1991.

The first crop forecast in February 1992 indicated a food deficit of 1.5 million metric tonnes of maize. The rate of import movement was lower than the daily market requirement and as a result the GMB could not built sufficient stocks. This promoted the Ministry of Local Government, Rural and Local Development to convene a meeting of the NCPCC on the 19th February 1992.