Latest Drought Hits Zimbabwe Farms Hard

Half the 10 million population may need help. Elephants are at risk, too.

THE gray, twisted hulks of hardwood trees loomed over the receding waters of Zimbabwe's massive Kariba Lake. Hippos and elephants have to walk farther to find deep waters.

Elsewhere across the country, parched cornfields wilt as the earth dries up. Having just recovered from this century's worst drought, in 1992, Zimbabwe fears another crisis threatening. Patchy and late rains have ruined many harvests, and thousands of wild animals are endangered by water and food shortages.

''The drought is very severe with some farmers facing greater losses than in 1992,'' says Peter MacSporran, president of the Commercial Farmers' Union, which accounts for about 85 percent of Zimbabwe's agricultural exports. ''There is no surface or underground water in many areas. So farmers have problems with supplying water for livestock.''

Bulawayo, the country's second-largest city, which houses one-third of Zimbabwe's industry, is imposing water restrictions. Agricultural sources say that with the drying-up of crops for many poor Zimbabweans, the number of people needing drought relief may rise to half the 10 million population, and hundreds of commercial farmers face bankruptcy.

Kariba, the country's largest reservoir, is only 22 percent full -- just above the 18 percent of the 1992 drought.

National Parks officials warn that hundreds of thousands of animals face food and water shortages, and that they may be forced to sell or cull 5,000 of the park's 80,000 elephants due to a scarcity of grazing land.

El Nino impact

Experts blame the drought on the cyclical El Nino phenomenon, which originates in the Pacific Ocean and changes climatic patterns around the world. Rains that normally fall from November to April came two months late and were patchy in some key farming areas.

Mr. MacSporran said that as a result, major crops such as maize, cotton, and soya would be cut by more than 50 percent.

The one promising area is tobacco, the country's main export. The industry forecasts output this year to rise, but the rain problems will probably affect quality.

Zimbabwe is better prepared than in 1992, when it imported 2 million tons of maize to feed the drought-stricken population. The government has established a 900,000-ton stockpile that officials say is enough until the next season. But exports of the staple have been suspended.

Popular disenchantment

This comes as millions of Zimbabweans suffer economic hardships under austerity measures imposed by the government that were conditions for aid from the International Monetary Fund.

The government can ill afford food and water shortages with popular disenchantment rising over the economic structural adjustment program. Life has become harder for most Zimbabweans with 50 percent official unemployment, 20 percent annual inflation, and heavy state borrowing that has stunted economic growth. Commercial farmers complain that high interest rates are curtailing production.

Not surprisingly, water was a prominent political issue in the parliamentary elections held on April 8 and 9. President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front, which has ruled since 1980, won by a landslide.

While on the campaign trail, Mr. Mugabe announced support for a 240-mile water pipeline to be built from the Zambezi River in the north to Bulawayo in the south, obviously trying to win votes away from the opposition forces in that city.

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