2020 and looking back at a disaster not fully planned for
As we all know, floods in Mozambique resulted in extensive crop losses, raising the specter of critical food shortages in affected central and southern regions, and very high prices of any food items that are available from other less affected regions. Harvesting of the 2019 main summer season cereal crops in affected provinces (Manica, Sofala and Zambezia) was expected to start at the end of March in southern areas and progress further north until the end of June, but now no harvests are possible.
Livestock have vanished during the floods, and herds will have to be replaced. As well as this, road and other infrastructure in these provinces was destroyed, and the flood waters and displacement of topsoil will undoubtedly affect the soil structure for planting in seasons to come.
In a Situation Report on Mozambique: Cyclone Idai and Floods, as of 2 April 2019, OCHA noted that in Mozambique, more than 715 000 hectares of crops were destroyed at the beginning of the main harvest period, raising concerns for rising food security. Nearly 400,000 people were reached with food assistance in the early stages of this disaster, while another 10,000 people receiving ready-to-eat meals in Beira City. The challenge will be to assist people with food through the winter period May to October 2019, when the next round of planting can take place, to be ready for harvesting again in April 2020. The main growing season in Mozambique starts with the first rains in September in the south and December in the north.
A quick scan of research and online agricultural fact sheets for Mozambique shows that recovering from the impact of a large scale climatic disaster like that from Cyclone Idai has not been envisaged, even as the realization grows that climate change will bring extreme weather events (Arndt and Ringler, 2019). While the understanding that these events will happen, the full impact of a cyclone on Mozambique’s agricultural sector, and the challenges of recovering from a cyclone, do not seem to have been fully planned for. In fact, the question remains, how does one plan for this type of extensive and severe event, especially in the type of flat landscape that is typical of most of Mozambique.
This does not mean that there were no plans, just that they were overwhelmed by the cyclone. And this cyclone was not just a once-off emergency: this is likely to happen much more frequently, in fact is likely to become ‘the new normal’ and more investment in research, farmer networks and markets, emergency support and insurance, as well as infrastructure (concrete or ‘green’ infrastructure) needs to be made.
The Beira Corridor is an important region for smallholder farmers, and a number of agricultural programmes are underway in this area (which has a partial overlap with the pathway of Cyclone Idai) to improve agricultural production (Joala, 2016). Planning for extreme devastation by a cyclone can hardly have been part of their strategic planning. The Beira Corridor is one of six development corridors highlighted in Mozambique’s strategic investment plan. It is one of Southern Africa’s main transport routes – a road and rail network links large parts of Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the port of Beira on the Indian Ocean. About 15 % of the arable land (1.47 million ha) is under smallholder farming and 25 000 hectares under commercial farming, with 88% dedicated to sugar cane, of which 80% is irrigated. Key crops produced in the Beira Corridor are maize, sweet potato, sorghum and rice (Joala, 2016).
Small scale agriculture forms the basis of Mozambique’s farming
Agriculture in Mozambique is for the most part based on small, hand-cultivated units often farmed by women-headed households. About 97 per cent of production comes from some 3.2 million subsistence farms averaging 1.2 hectares in size. The smallholder sector in Mozambique is characterized by holdings of multiple small plots, multiple crops, rain-fed water, traditional varieties, low intensity fertilizer and pesticide use and little or no mechanization, and low productivity. Most households diversify their livelihoods activities to cope with low productivity and income. The majority of small holder farmers practice extensive shifting cultivation, only about one-third sell any crop output, and almost two-thirds live in households that lack food security. Cassava and maize form the main subsistence production of the country, with about 30 other crops also being grown, often as cash crops (Walker et al, 2006).
The recovery of agriculture in the affected provinces
While in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, governments and humanitarian organisations must respond quickly and robustly to Cyclone Idai and address both the immediate crisis and minimise the long-term adverse effects on livelihoods and development prospects of those directly affected and those impacted indirectly (Arndt and Ringler, 2019). The impact of the floods are expected to result in an increased prevalence and severity of food insecurity in central provinces over the next six months, especially for households that have lost their food crops and livestock, and income opportunities from crop sales.
The immediate humanitarian interventions are focused on search and rescue, but the provision of shelter and the delivery of food aid, following the recession of floodwaters, interventions to support agricultural households is required in order to restore their productive capacities, in consideration of likely losses of productive assets and agricultural equipment (FAO Country Brief, Mozambique 20 March 2019). How the agricultural sector will be restored to production again after the cyclone needs some serious thought.
The availability of suitable seeds for replanting
From the PLAAS article by Joala (2016), it is clear that much debate has occurred about the government of Mozambique’s quest to improve the productivity of its agricultural sector using modern varieties and chemical fertilizers has been met with some resistance. This is at the same time that the farmers themselves need tried and tested seeds that can withstand the harsh effects of climate change. They do not trust the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ seed varieties and unaffordable fertilizers. There have also been opposition to a national seed certification scheme and protecting plant varieties and breeders’ rights, with not much being done at national level to protect local crop landraces. It may happen that the private sector’s ‘improved seeds’ will be stealthily deployed under the cover of the Cyclone Idai crisis, despite local resistance.
Whether or not the subsistence agricultural sector will be able to recover from seeds varieties kept by local farmers in other areas and shared, is questionable. Following the recent floods, the land races of local maize and other crops will also have been lost, along with the crop production itself. PLAAS also mentions that the Mozambican government’s promotion of the commercial sector simply ignores the potential role that small-scale farmers can play in agricultural research and development, thus completely discarding all the knowledge and techniques accumulated by Mozambican farmers over the years.
Also, potentially, a new planting schedule for the next growing season will be needed that takes into account new silt deposits and residual moisture, following the subsidence of the floods. What types of agricultural production assistance will be needed, along with training, to replant either the same crops or different crops, to make use of the new post-cyclone agricultural situation?
Joala R (2016). Beira Corridor smallholders concerned about impact of agricultural investment on Mozambique’s seed regimes. Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS). http://www.plaas.org.za/blog/beira-corridor-smallholders-concerned-about-impact-agricultural-investment-mozambique%E2%80%99s-seed
Arndt Cl., and Ringler C. (2019). Cyclone Idai shows why long-term disaster resilience is so crucial. Reliefwqeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/mozambique/cyclone-idai-shows-why-long-term-disaster-resilience-so-crucial
Walker T., Pitoro R., Tomo A., itoe I., Salencia R., Mahanzule, C.D and Mazuau F. (2006). Priority Setting for public sector agricultural research in Mozambique with the National Agricultural Survey Data. LIAM, Research Report Series. https://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/pics/d97770.pdf