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Botswana calm as scramble for El Nino funds heats up

Tough talk: Kamau pulled no punches during his whistlestop tour of Botswana. PIC: KAGISO ONKATSWITSE
Donors have thus far released just $535 million of the $2.9 billion SADC states have asked for to cope with the effects of last seasons El Nino crisis. None of the funding has been towards Botswana, which is looking for $66 million, and yet panic bells are not being pressed. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI finds out why

The United Nations Special Envoy on El Niño & Climate, Ambassador Macharia Kamau was in town recently and, as he has done elsewhere across the continent, he rang alarm bells on climate change and governments’ ability to cope.

Kamau is particularly concerned that following two successive El Nino-hit seasons, the little output farmers gleaned from their fields this year, is running out. For the region and Botswana as well, December 2016/January 2017 will mark the peak of the El Nino crisis in terms of food security, with government and household granaries running empty, while the season’s crop is yet to reach harvest stage.

His worries are amplified by the fact that the donor response to SADC’s appeal for $2.9 billion in humanitarian assistance, has only yielded $535 million ahead of the upcoming peak period.

The situation is painfully ironic, as across the region, November rains have greened landscapes, helped livestock start recovering and enabled ploughing for the new season. The trouble is about food in granaries now.

“The situation may get worse and you would want to get more,” he says.

“The real crisis may lie in the December to January peak period for food security. Right now, we have a failure of crops from last season but people and governments still have food in stores, but by December/January that will be running low, while the new crop is unavailable.” Around the region, countries most affected by the recent El Nino are echoing Kamau’s alarm bells and stepping up their efforts to persuade donors to respond to the appeal, launched in July by then SADC chair, President Ian Khama. At the time, Khama painted a grim picture of the region, revealing that 40 million people were in need of relief, including 23 million in dire straits in the region’s worst drought in 35 years. Botswana was absent from the original appeal document, but in September, appeared as an addendum seeking $66 million for just over one million citizens. None of the little donor funds given thus far in response to Khama’s appeal have been channelled to Botswana and Kamau has ideas on why.

“Here we have to share the blame,” the Special Envoy explains, appearing slightly uncomfortable. “There appears to be a belief among donors that Botswana is doing well and does not need that much support, compared to other countries. Donors should not think like this because it’s not healthy for Botswana.”

Also, he says, Botswana’s inclusion in the appeal came late.

Kamau, shifting further in his seat, chooses his words as he further postulates on why donor funding under the appeal has not reached Botswana. “The other issue is that Botswana must become more aggressive in pursuing assistance and become more targeted, more coordinated without thinking ‘this is begging’ or thinking about the country’s pride.

“I live in the US and during Hurricane Katrina, many countries, including UNICEF came to help and that’s the US! In Japan, during the 2011 tsunami, countries came to help, including Kenya.

“It doesn’t matter how rich you or strong you are, there will be times when you need help. The question becomes how to help Botswana become more aggressive and purposeful in its pursuit of help and also how to get the international community to stop denying Botswana the help it needs under the pretext that the country is doing well.”

It is a situation where Botswana has become the victim of its own success. Despite being semi arid and prone to cyclical droughts, the country’s economic success over the decades has weaned it off humanitarian appeals and allowed government to self-finance interventions. Whenever there is a drought, government releases millions towards farmers’ insurance, the underprivileged, primary school students, livestock assistance and even veldt fire risk. In 2015, the amount was P445 million and this year, the supplementary budget will likely contain a similarly robust figure. Government has already told SADC it will self-finance up to $17 million of the total $83 million required for drought relief this year.

Ahead of El Nino’s peak period, Kamau’s alarm bells are ringing regionally and while Botswana requires $66 million, the renamed Ministry of Agricultural Development

and Food Security (MADFS) is not echoing the alarm.

According to figures released by the ministry on Tuesday, in the last harvest, local farmers only produced 13.6% of the national annual demand of cereals and other crops. Cereals include maize, wheat, sorghum and millet. This was far below the target of producing at least 30% of the national demand and forced the import of about 2,500 tonnes of cereals in the first three months of the year.

The calm and absence of alarm bells stem largely from the health of the strategic grain reserves, which by Tuesday held 30,000 tonnes of sorghum and 2,000 tonnes of cowpeas, enough to carry the country to the next harvest.

White maize imports by both millers and the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board are also continuing, with prices in South Africa improving due to a higher than expected harvest and better seasonal prospects.

Unlike regional neighbours such as South Africa, Namibia and Zambia where commercial farmers bear the responsibility for food security, in Botswana, arable production is driven by subsistence farmers in rural areas. In its efforts to improve national food security, government, therefore, is able to focus its support on these farmers, spending billions of pula annually on various inputs.

For the 2015/16 season, subsistence farmers planted 250,628 hectares and reaped 96,895 tonnes of cereals and other crops, compared to 40,573 hectares planted by commercial farmers who reaped 48,350 tonnes.

For the current season, government has already released 3,000 tonnes of seeds and 35,000 tonnes of fertilisers to the subsistence farmers and is expecting planted land to reach 350,000 hectares.

All this support, both for planting and for drought relief when the rains do not fall, requires heavy expenditure from a budget fraught with competing interests such as education, health and infrastructure. Between April 2017 and March 2023, the MADFS plans to spend P2.9 billion on ISPAAD, the primary agricultural inputs programme for subsistence farmers. For Kamau, as commendable as these efforts are and as resilient Botswana has grown to become, there are worrying signs around the sustainability of such safety nets.

As other countries move from one weather crisis to the next, reaching out their hands for international assistance, Botswana, as Kamau says, has been able to prevent extreme weather events from becoming humanitarian crises. There is a limit however. “Certainly, Botswana’s ability to prevent that comes from planning, oversight and coordination of activities, coming out of the rubric of good governance,” he says. “However, business as usual may become very difficult to sustain. Botswana could find itself in a situation of lower revenues soon because of a reduced ability to exploit its natural resources, such as diamonds. “It is very expensive to compensate farmers year in and out and put in place social safety nets, which also take money away from development programmes.

“The question is, how do you continue year in and out to support these, in the context of increasing severity of weather events due to climate change? How do you continue to compensate farmers through insurance, provide nutrition, livestock assistance and others when revenues are declining?

“These are questions Botswana has to answer and it’s going to take a different approach. The current models of intervention will not work.”

Kamau and his UN team are putting together a blueprint to help countries such as Botswana respond differently to climate change disasters. The Special Envoy says the response needs to be “transformative and sustainable” with a focus on securing livelihoods and building capability and resilience.

“This will require out of the box thinking; thinking around food production, water provision, livestock management and others. We have to realise that the future may be more dramatic and severe in terms of weather.” While this year’s season is off to a cracker, with solid rains and robust provision of inputs by government, the spectre of climate change means the frequency of horror seasons will increase. Experts believe Botswana will have less room to be calm in the midst of regional panic and will have to become more adept at engaging donors not only for technical assistance, but to provide humanitarian relief.


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