Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
Climate change, corrupt mismanagement and financial skullduggery kill. That triple cocktail of contemporary poison has sent Zimbabwe, among Africa’s most beleaguered political entities and the continent’s one-time breadbasket, to the brink of wholesale starvation.
Hilal Elver, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, declared late last month: “The people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of man-made starvation.” The World Food Programme says that 7 million people, nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population, are “in need,” and that it plans to feed at least 4 million.
Ms. Elver found stunted and underweight children suffering from kwashiorkor and marasmus, mothers too hungry to breastfeed children and shortages of basic medicines in hospitals.
A crushing drought this year has crippled crops in much of southern Africa, including most of Zimbabwe, despite a massive cyclone that drenched a mountainous area in the eastern part of the country.
Global warming and climate shifts are responsible for the calamitous lack of moisture in so much of southern Africa in 2018 and 2019. The rains of the interior are all governed by an inter-tropical convergence system that is weakening as a result of climate change. Tropical moist oceanic air reliably moved from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans toward an equatorial low-pressure zone in the centre of Africa, producing steady rains. That reliability is now no longer assured as the total global system warms uncontrollably. The Zambezi River’s flow over iconic Victoria Falls has slowed to “a trickle.”
Neither Zimbabwe nor its neighbours can do anything directly about global warming and its effects on the livelihoods of indigenous small-scale farmers who depend entirely on annual rains to water their maize, wheat, manioc and pulses. Only about three per cent of Zimbabwe’s agricultural areas have access to irrigation, mostly on plantations growing sugar for export.
But Zimbabweans are hungry and likely to face starvation because the climate emergency is compounded by their government’s mismanagement of the national economy, by its inability to slow soaring inflation and by its refusal to curb the massive public corruption that saps every Zimbabwean’s chances. A full 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s workers in the formal sector are unemployed.
There are physical shortages of cash within the national economy, caused and compounded by the government’s shift from convertible currencies like the U.S. dollar and the South African rand to the so-far failed attempt to re-introduce a local Zimbabwe dollar that is backed by nothing tangible. Economically and fiscally, Zimbabwe and its people are running on fumes, not on a medium that is reliable or confidence-building.
Ms. Elver claimed last month that Zimbabwe’s inflation was “skyrocketing over 490 per cent,” the highest in the world after Venezuela. Whether or not that number is accurate (some estimates are lower), high inflation is eating away at individual and family resources. Resilience is difficult when incomes, paltry as they are, rapidly erode. Purchasing food becomes exceedingly difficult as much because of financial mismanagement as because of climate shifts.
Foreign exchange supplies have been mismanaged by the government, and cash is short in Zimbabwe, largely because of official policies that have shifted all foreign earnings into administration coffers (for plunder by a privileged elite) and made them non-convertible for regular civilians.
The health of Zimbabweans has been compromised as well by the foreign-exchange manipulations of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his associates. In September, the country’s capital city ran out of convertible cash with which to purchase chemicals to purify its remaining public water supplies. So it shut its already poorly maintained public system, ending access for more than 2 million dwellers in Harare to clean water. Additionally, water shortages and cash deficiencies have caused power to dry up. City dwellers can count on frequent outages, with electricity available for about five hours a day.
These fiscal disasters have all been compromised by Mr. Mnangagwa’s refusal to crack down on corruption, as he promised. Very few highly placed political associates have been prosecuted, much less convicted. Rampant corruption continues unchecked, corroding what little is left of the once robust foundations of a secure and prosperous society.
The UN rapporteur’s warning and the World Food Programme’s efforts may help stave off immediate deaths of innocent Zimbabweans. But only fundamental administrative and governmental reforms that end corrupt mismanagement will save Zimbabwe (and African nations in similar straits) in the future, when global warming is certain to worsen.
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