Julius Mutero has harvested virtually nothing in the past six years. For his entire adult life, he has farmed a three-hectare plot in Mabiya, a farming community in eastern Zimbabwe. There he grows maize and groundnuts to feed himself, his wife, and their three children. He sells whatever’s left for cash.

But over a decade ago, his area started getting less rain and the rivers dried up. What was already a hot climate, with temperatures that could reach 30 °C (86 °F), began recording summer highs up to 37 °C (99 °F) on a regular basis. Now the rainy season begins in late December instead of early November, and it ends sooner too. In the driest months, dust billows across sunbaked farmlands where only thorny shrubs remain.

Years of severe droughts have wiped out all Mutero’s crops. He tried planting maize varieties that mature early, but even they didn’t survive. And with no pastures for his livestock, he watched helplessly as all seven of his cows died. 

“Life is now extremely hard here,” Mutero says. His family survives largely on food aid supplied by nonprofits or Zimbabwe’s government, but it’s not enough. 

He feels he has no choice but to abandon his home in search of water. He’s fortunate—a traditional leader has promised him a small piece of land about 30 kilometers from Mabiya in the country’s Eastern Highlands, which get more rain and heavier mists than the rest of the country. 

When we spoke in October, Mutero was planning to build a new home and relocate his family by year’s end. But he was nervous. “I don’t know what my family and I will face and how we will be received,” he said.

Mutero is just one of the 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who the World Bank estimates will migrate domestically by 2050 because of climate change—the largest number predicted in any of six major regions the organization studied for a new report. 

In Zimbabwe, farmers who have tried to stay put and adapt by harvesting rainwater or changing what they grow have found their efforts woefully inadequate in the face of new weather extremes. Droughts have already forced tens of thousands from the country’s lowlands to the Eastern Highlands. But their desperate moves are creating new competition for water in the region, and tensions may soon boil over.

Running out

Zimbabwe has endured droughts for the past three decades. But they’re happening more often and becoming more severe as a result of climate change. Up to 70% of people in Zimbabwe make a living from agriculture or related rural economic activities, and millions of subsistence farmers there depend entirely on rain to water their crops. Over the last 40 years, average temperatures have risen by 1 °C , while annual rainfall has decreased by 20 to 30%.

At the height of the most recent drought, which lasted from 2018 to 2020, only about half as much rain fell in Zimbabwe as usual. Crops were scorched and pastures dried up. People and livestock crowded around hand-pumped boreholes to find water, but the wells soon went dry. Some people in the driest areas had so little to eat they survived on the leaves and white, powdery fruit of baobab trees.

More rain fell during the last growing season, but many farmers still feel uneasy about the future. Maize—Zimbabwe’s staple crop, which was aggressively promoted by the former colonial government beginning in the 1940s—is becoming impossible to grow. 

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Over 5 million Zimbabweans—a third of the population—don’t have enough to eat, according to the World Food Program. A study in 2019 of how vulnerable countries were to agricultural disruption due to drought ranked Zimbabwe third, behind only Botswana and Namibia. 

As Mutero and other climate migrants know, conditions are somewhat better in the Eastern Highlands. This mountainous region stretches for around 300 kilometers along Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique. Many of the region’s major rivers, including the Pungwe and Odzi, begin there as streams. The area’s climate and fertile soils are perfect for growing crops such as tea, coffee, plums, avocados, and a sweet pinkish-red fruit called lychee.

When climate migrants started showing up in the Eastern Highlands a decade ago, they settled without permission on state land, and the government was swift to evict them. But they returned in even larger numbers, and officials have more or less given up trying to stop them.

By 2015, the government estimated that more than 20,000 migrants had settled in the Eastern Highlands. Though no more recent official estimates exist, anecdotal evidence suggests the number has continued to climb.

Today in some parts of the highlands, migrants occupy any vacant land they can find. In others, traditional or community leaders like the one helping Mutero,

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By: Andrew Mambondiyani
Title: Zimbabwe’s climate migration is a sign of what’s to come
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/12/17/1041315/climate-migration-africa-zimbabwe/
Published Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2021 11:00:00 +0000

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