When the water dries up: Helping Zimbabweans through El Niño

By Bert Smit, Regional Portfolio Manager, Southern Africa Region

What surprised me most when I arrived in Zimbabwe was how cold it was.

Winter in the Southern Hemisphere is supposed to have ended in July, but at the end of August it was still feeling chilly. People told me that in the north of the country, a couple of snowflakes had fallen. Unfortunately, these cold temperatures don’t translate into what Zimbabweans are in need of most: rain.

El Niño has brought the greatest drought in 35 years to Southern Africa, leaving 4 million people in Zimbabwe experiencing food insecurity. This weather phenomenon has now officially ended, but the effects continue. They are expected to last at least until April 2017. Even when the rains do come, that doesn’t mean that people have food on their plates the next day. Their most important staple food is maize, and that takes time to grow. And during this time, it needs regular rains.

I visit a village we’ve been working in, in the east of Zimbabwe, close to the border with Mozambique. I want to find out how World Vision works in partnership with other organisations to ensure that the population, especially children, can eat enough.

My first visit is to the clinic, built in 2013 with World Vision’s support. The community contributed labour and bricks. I ask Nurse Murondi if they’ve been receiving malnourished children because of the drought.

“Yes, the Care Groups that exist within the community bring these children to us,” she tells me. These Care Groups mostly consist of mothers from the community, trained by World Vision to identify signs of malnourishment in children.

Unfortunately, the clinic doesn’t have food supplements to treat the children themselves. Severe cases are sent to the hospital in the neighbouring village. There are no ambulances here though, and often, in severe cases, families have to walk six miles to get to the hospital.

So how do people get food?

In the distance I see a line of people, getting longer by the minute. I ask Brighton Muuya, World Vision’s Health Officer for the district, what they are waiting for. “They are registering to receive food assistance. World Vision has liberated part of the budget of our programmes to buy food. Other organisations, like Care and the World Food Programme have also chipped in,” he tells me. Seeing all these people waiting in the sun really hits home how serious the situation is.

We go to another nearby village, to visit a secondary school, where World Vision has installed piped water. The aim of this is so students can wash their hands after using the toilet, improving hygiene and reducing instances of disease. Since the village is not connected to the electrical grid, World Vision has installed a solar powered pump to move the water up.

It looks rather sturdy, but drought here continues to cause problems.

“The water isn’t enough, and it’s becoming more and more salinized,” Mr. Masango, the Deputy Head Teacher tells me. They have decided to share the water with neighbouring villagers, simply because the need is so high. “When people walk to their fields to do agricultural work, they pass by our taps and fill their buckets with water, to drink during the day.”

The school has a 5000 litre water cistern. “Normally, it already takes a long time to fill - four or five hours. But because so many villagers take water from the tap, it almost never fills up,” Brighton Muuya continues. A couple of feet further away, there is an irrigation system. It is supposed to be fed by a nearby river, but the water levels are so low that the system is practically dry.

At least the school is still providing water, and I’m happy that World Vision has been able to help with a borehole and a pump. I appreciate the difficult decisions that the school needs to make, sharing the little water they have between the villagers and the pupils.

We share a simple lunch at the school - maize porridge, peanut paste, and pieces of goat and chicken. After I’m finished, I experience first-hand what the problem is; when I go to the tap to wash my hands, there is no more water…

It is easy to see that it will take a while before the effects of El Niño will be over. World Vision has launched its El Niño crisis appeal, calling on supporters to help us make sure that children and their families make it through the drought across Zimbabwe and other countries, without harm.

UNICEF warns that malnutrition is on the rise in Zimbabwe due to a severe drought, leaving 4 million people in need of food aid. Funded by DFID, we've been able to help around 356,000 people, who've been affected in 15 districts of southern Zimbabwe. Through our El Nino Crisis Appeal you can help us to support over 1.7 million people affected by El Nino across nine countries in Southern Africa»

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