The immediate crisis scenario
On the 29th of October, 2.3 million people in Zambia were reported by the BBC to be facing severe food shortages. Unless recovery assistance is given, this problem has the potential to escalate into a humanitarian crisis with the starvation of millions. The International Red Cross stated that many of these families are only able to eat one meal a day, and in the worst affected areas some are surviving on wild fruit and roots. This coping mechanism exposes communities to poisonous species and serious health risks. Children are unable to attend school due to food shortages and increased transactional sex due to women requiring money to feed their families has been reported. The 2019 Zambia Vulnerability assessment revealed an increase in severe malnutrition levels, which stands at over 30% of the population in the worst affected regions such as Shang’ombo. 64% of affected communities are relying on unsafe drinking water resulting in their risk of detrimental diseases, such as typhoid or cholera, increasing drastically.
According to the head of Zambia’s Red Cross, Kaitano Chungu, ‘people and animals – both livestock and wildlife – are having to use the same water points. This is unacceptable as it exposes people to diseases and creates a heightened risk of animal attacks.’ The International Red Cross has appealed for $3.5 million Swiss francs to provide sustained emergency and assistance to around 57,000 people. The UN, along with other humanitarian partners have launched a 7-month plan which involves providing unconditional cash grants to targeted families.
This food crisis has come as a result of failing crops due to climate change manifesting itself as severe weather changes. The lowest seasonal rainfall in at least 30 years has been recorded in the south and west of Zambia, resulting in poor harvests. Meanwhile, the northern and eastern parts of the country have experienced flash flooding and waterlogging which have destroyed crops.
The deeper issue
The root problem of this crisis is the low resilience of rural communities to external shocks. 60% of the population lives in extreme poverty resulting in them having very few resources and coping strategies to fall back on, such as financial backup if failing harvests occur. Furthermore, 80% of the population work in non-irrigated agriculture which makes their harvests highly vulnerable to climate outcomes, such as extreme weather changes predicted to increase exponentially over the coming years.
In the case of Zambia, providing humanitarian assistance is a now necessary measure that must be taken to ensure that the lives of millions are not lost. However, taking these actions only when communities are on the brink of starvation is neither a sustainable nor efficient solution to the fundamental root of this problem. Measures such as unconditional cash grants, although effective in the short term for obtaining food, don’t provide long term independent asset bases to rely on. Agricultural communities are still dependant on external aid as a food source in the case of failing harvests. Furthermore, focusing on immediate humanitarian assistance shifts the attention away from the structural failings of long term national and international government planning and investments to enable vulnerable communities to build sustainable, resilient livelihoods.
At a structural level, it is Zambia’s national framework for climate adaptation, formed in the 2015 revision of its National Disaster Management Policy, which has so far failed to permanently reduce the root vulnerabilities of rural communities. Whilst it is an important step in the right direction, top-down planning processes have resulted in adaptation plans being disconnected from the needs of communities. For example, academic research on this issue in Zambia has shown that top-down plans to use seed and fertilizer packages are not useful to local communities because they don’t allow for site-specific approaches to farming.
Secondly, the top-down nature of Zambia’s climate adaptation framework means that the capacities of local institutions have not been given adequate support to build up. This is crucial to do, as it is local institutions that facilitate resilience building to climate disasters at a local scale. Currently, local disaster management units in Zambia are resource-poor and depend on the central state for budgets, information and decision making.
Potential adaptation plans which could be implemented to improve the resilience of local communities include diversifying income sources from not just agriculture but selling craft products or pottery. Climate-smart agricultural techniques such as intercropping, or planting drought-resistant crops could improve harvest results in extreme weather conditions. Technologies hold immense potentials of improving resilience outcomes, and further research into these areas could bring transformative results. As an example, due to unpredictable rainfall, cheap water technologies such as rainwater harvesting or micro-irrigation systems can be easily installed, easily managed and have the potential to greatly benefit communities in Zambia. This potential has not yet been picked up in adaptation measures planned nationally.
Climate change is a global problem, and as such it requires a global solution. There needs to be a global pooling of resources, advocacy, and planning towards creating more enabling societal structures that allow vulnerable communities to build up resilience to disaster scenarios. In the case of Zambia, an important first step is adequately decentralizing climate governance so that local communities are involved in their own adaptation to climate change. The active will and engagement of local communities are crucial to the success of any plans taken. This has the potential to be achieved through civil society and international pressures on the national government towards taking such measures.
In order for these pressures to occur, there needs to be a greater awareness of the structural problems behind food shortages and starvation. In the society we live in today, throwing aid money at these problems, both from governments and civil society, is a convenient method of continuing with our lives whilst feeling like a difference is being made. What is really needed is structural change from governments taking necessary steps to finally meaningfully tackle climate problems, be that reducing further emissions or giving vulnerable communities the support to build up their resilience. For the 2.3 million Zambian’s under threat of starvation, climate change is real and climate change is already occurring. It is neither fair nor just that the poorest are the ones suffering the consequences from a problem created globally. It is imperative that sustained support, efforts, and devolution of resources ensure that vulnerable communities are able to build sustainable resilient livelihoods and live in a fairer world.
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