How climate and corruption have combined to create Zimbabwe’s food crisis

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A youth fetches water from a dam near Mount Darwin, Zimbabwe, October 26, 2016. Picture taken October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For over a month, the United Nations has been sounding the alarm about the growing food crisis in Zimbabwe. It’s estimated that 60 percent of the population doesn’t have access to adequate food.

    We will talk with people with deep understanding of the situation, but, first, we have this background report.

    In what used to be called Southern Africa’s breadbasket, today, Zimbabweans are desperate for food. Facing a climate disaster and an unprecedented economic meltdown, more than half of the population is food-insecure.

    The United Nations’ World Food Program is sounding the alarm.

  • Bettina Luescher:

    We are facing the worst hunger crisis in more than a decade. The situation is nothing short of tragic. There is no other way of putting it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zimbabwe is enduring its worst drought in decades. And for rural farmers, largely growing water-intensive maize, erratic rain patterns have proven catastrophic.

    In Hwange National Park, herds of elephants died of drought-related starvation earlier this year. But the crisis is largely manmade, according to the WFP.

  • Bettina Luescher:

    The crisis is being exacerbated by a dire shortage of foreign currency, runaway inflation, mounting unemployment, lack of fuel, prolonged power outages, and large-scale living — livestock losses, and they inflict the urban population just as well as rural villages.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The International Monetary Fund says Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is the world’s highest, at 300 percent. Many blame the political and economic turmoil on former President Robert Mugabe.

    The anti-colonial icon was at the forefront of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. But he clung to power for nearly 30 years, presiding over the decline of what was once one of the continent’s most prosperous countries. He was ousted in 2017.

    Hope that Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, can reverse the decline is running thin. The government is now scrapping a plan to remove grain subsidies next year, a move aimed at shielding Zimbabweans from the rising food costs.

    For more on all of this, we turn to two men who know Zimbabwe well.

    Gerry Bourke is the Southern Africa spokesman for the United Nations World Food Program, the lead international agency working to alleviate the food crisis in Zimbabwe. He was just there last week. And Harry Thomas Jr. had a 34-year career as an American diplomat and served as the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2016 to 2018.

    And welcome to you both. Thank you for being here.

    Gerry, I do want to begin with you.

    Sixty percent of the country’s 14 million don’t have the food to meet their basic needs. You were just there. Tell me what you saw and heard from families on the ground.

  • Gerry Bourke:

    Well, it’s really a national catastrophe, a calamity.

    People simply do not have enough food. The larders are dry. The harvest comes in once a year, in April. Stocks from that are largely exhausted. They’re looking forward to the next harvest in April. The rainy season has arrived. It’s arrived two months’ late.

    There are patches of green, but the lack of rain is really causing problems. Seeds put into the ground have not germinated. Some re-planting will have to be done. And, in the meantime, people are struggling to get by in a major way, taking kids out of school, selling off precious belongings, selling off cattle, for example, lots of people really hurting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Gerry, give me a specific example, if you can, of the kinds of things people are telling you. What, for an example, is an average people eating and subsisting on from day to day?

  • Gerry Bourke:

    Well, they’re eating less. They’re skipping meals, a little bit of maize meal.

    But prices have skyrocketed. A loaf of bread is now 20 times what it was six months ago. Maize, the staple food, has increased multiple times. So it’s a huge struggle just to get by.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Thomas, you heard mention Gerry mention the rainy season coming late. There has been a drought. There’s a broader climate crisis in the region. This isn’t just due to drought, though, is it?

  • Harry Thomas Jr.:


    The people of Zimbabwe deserve better. This is because of massive corruption, mismanagement for many years. The government and leaders of Zimbabwe are only interested in power accumulation and wealth maintenance.

    It’s unfortunate. It’s manmade, despite the drought, as Gerry said. We’re very pleased, however, that the United States has stepped up, has already put about $170 million toward food security. The British and the European Union have as well.

    But the people of Zimbabwe deserve better.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That mismanagement, that corruption you mentioned, it’s sort of alarming for people to think about how a country can go from being the continent’s breadbasket, as we said in the report, to this downward spiral, where people are struggling for basic needs.

    How does that happen so quickly?

  • Harry Thomas Jr.:

    It happens when its leaders take all of the money that they earn through selling minerals, as they should, gold, plutonium — they are a very wealthy country — and put it in their pockets.

    And you have to think. They had over 1,300 dams. They’re no longer maintained. The wells are no longer maintained. People are digging boreholes to get water. And that puts — makes — they keep digging deeper and deeper.

    And there’s there’s less water. And it’s exacerbated by the drought and climate change.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Gerry, you mentioned some of those hard choices that people on the ground are having to make.

    We’re focused on the food crisis, because that’s often one of the most visible among the crises. But Zimbabweans are dealing with so much more. Tell me about some of the ripple effects you’re worried about this crisis could have.

  • Gerry Bourke:

    Well, we’re very focused on scaling up ourselves. We’re going to double within the next few weeks the number of Zimbabweans we are supporting, those in crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity.

    So we’re going from about two million people now to over four million. And we will be doing that through the peak of the lean season, which is essentially January to March,ahead of next harvest in April.

    So, a major scale-up, requiring all hands to the pump, and a significant amount of money, if we are to fully effect that scale-up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Gerry, I was reading, the previous World Food Program work there has been largely cash assistance going into Zimbabwe.

    That’s no longer the case, though, is it? Tell me what’s happening on the ground now.

  • Gerry Bourke:

    In fact, what with hyperinflation and very limited availability of local currency, we are having to do a wholesale switch from a cash assistance to in-kind food assistance.

    So we are — and because much of the rest of Africa has also suffered from drought and flooding, we are having to source food for Zimbabwe much further afield, in Latin America, in Asia, and in Europe, some in Africa, but most of it from elsewhere.

    So it’s a massive old-fashioned logistical operation, shipping food into Durban in South Africa, in Beira in Mozambique, and then trucking the food into landlocked Zimbabwe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Thomas, you mentioned all the U.S. money going into Zimbabwe. And you also mentioned the corruption was part of the problem that got people there where they are today.

    Is there any concern that continuing corruption can mean that people of Zimbabwe don’t get the help they need?

  • Harry Thomas Jr.:

    Yes, there is.

    That is our concern, our government’s concern. And it should be, but we need to hold the government accountable. For example, they are trying to — they have imported wheat from Tanzania. The worldwide price is about $240 to $250 a ton. They charge $600.

    So they have inflated the price, so the wealthy and the cronies can buy it and sell it at a price over the double the worldwide price. They’re trying to import some from Mozambique, as Gerry said. But Mozambique wants to be paid in hard currency.

    This is another African nation that is saying, you pay me in hard currency. And the people suffering — and these are a brilliant people. I don’t if you know they — I was there for three years. This time, they had six Rhodes Scholar. They always have Rhodes Scholars every year. I’m sure they will have more.

    And to see people have to not to send their kids to school, to have to walk to work, not to have the ability to get secondary education is heartrending.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have less than 30 seconds left, and I have to ask you a big question.

    With all this aid, is there a hope that things will get better for the people of Zimbabwe?

  • Harry Thomas Jr.:

    Well, I have confidence in the U.S. government, our European colleagues, the U.N. agencies who are stepping up to the plate to help the people of Zimbabwe.

    What we need to do is have the government of Zimbabwe be transparent. They have grains in their storage. Tell us how much they have, so we can help them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Be transparent and be accountable.

  • Harry Thomas Jr.:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Harry Thomas, and, of course, Gerry Bourke from the World Food Program, thanks very much to both of you.

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