Zimbabwe’s climate migration is a sign of what’s to come


Too little, too late

In scorched parts of Zimbabwe, some farmers have tried to cope and stay put. They’ve returned to planting drought-resistant traditional grains like finger millet, pearl millet, and sorghum. Others have switched from irrigating their crops by flooding entire fields to using systems that drip only the necessary amount of water right next to each plant.  

And some, including Blessing Zimunya, a farmer in Chitora, have tried to harvest rainwater for irrigation and other uses. Zimunya uses a 5,000-liter container to collect water from his roof and a 100,000-liter tank to collect runoff on the ground. He supplements these systems with water from a nearby river.

Natalie Watson, the managing director of Bopoma Villages, a nongovernmental organization that runs a clean water and hygiene project, says rainwater harvesting has great potential to make a difference. She cites a well-known Zimbabwean farmer named Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, who before he died transformed dry land into lush fields using methods that Watson’s organization now teaches.

Her program is currently focused on the Zaka district in southern Zimbabwe, where hundreds of farmers are taking part. Some in the nearby province of Midlands have also begun to experiment with rainwater harvesting.

Living alone in Zimbabwe’s arid Mudzi district, 90-year-old Leah Tsiga sometimes goes for days without a solid meal.

AP PHOTO/TSVANGIRAYI MUKWAZHI

The total number of farmers in Zimbabwe who have taken up the practice is still very low, though. Of the more than 7 million small farmers across the country, only a few thousand in the driest provinces have tried it. Despite the efforts of organizations like Watson’s, most farmers don’t have the money to build large tanks to store water. Many more still don’t know what rainwater harvesting is, or how to get started.

Other nonprofit programs are underway to help farmers adapt by learning new practices to preserve soil moisture and finding ways to diversify their incomes beyond agriculture. And last year, Zimbabwe’s government announced a plan to create 760,000 new “green” jobs in four years in fields like solar, hydropower, energy efficiency, and sustainable agriculture. But these efforts are still in their infancy. 

Gift Sanyanga of Haarlem Mutare City Link—a twin-city arrangement between the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands and Zimbabwe’s Mutare that commissioned a 2019 report on climate migration in the Eastern Highlands (and paid for me to travel to Haarlem to speak that same year)—says adaptation measures have largely failed, and the only practical option left for many farmers is to migrate.



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