o While certain climatic events can be predicted with greater accuracy, and in timelier fashion than ever before, the complexity of issues involved in any particular country's response to drought makes the process of estimating the value of such forecasts an extremely difficult and imprecise endeavor.

Understanding ENSO and how it affects climate around the globe is certainly a key element to providing an effective means of response to climate-related anomalies. However, equally important for us is to understand how broader societal policies can enhance or inhibit the value of a reliable forecast. A full account of past drought episodes and responses to them that bear on present drought economics and politics in Southern Africa covers a wide-range of issues. Unfortunately, a complete historical assessment is beyond the scope of this report. For example, within the last several decades, the RSA's apartheid government destabilized the entire Southern African region, bringing civil conflict, refugee streams, famine, and economic ruin in its wake. Human losses from this are estimated to be two million, and the regional cost during the 1980s has been estimated at $US 95 billion (Green et al., 1992). However, such historical assessments and reviews do exist (e.g., Vogel, 1994; Interim Report of the South African Drought Investigation Commission, 1922).

The international economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s led most of Sub-Saharan Africa into seemingly insurmountable debt and economic stagnation (Lancaster, 1991). In addition, the varieties of crops currently emphasized in agricultural policies throughout the continent are part of the problem. Maize and wheat, which were brought to Africa by Europeans at the time of colonization, replaced over the centuries more drought-resistant staple food crops native to Sub-Saharan Africa, including sorghum, millet, and cassava (NRC, 1996). Cash crops such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco are grown for export. Aside from the fact that their production may have adverse impacts on the environment, they clearly impinge on optimal food crop production (NRC, 1996).

Another factor fostering stagnation has been the colonial legacy of centralized governments, especially in the form of parastatal food marketing boards. Such monopolistic boards do not allow for flexible economic planning under normal weather conditions, let alone in the face of drought. And the region's population growth, which has outstripped its agricultural production, puts a strain on all resources -- even in the absence of drought.

An important political consideration related to drought is the idea that: "No government likes to admit that it cannot feed its people. Thus, early warnings about impending food shortages and the food needs assessments that follow are often politically charged statements. In fact, governments frequently delay announcements of impending food shortages, hoping that they will not develop into full-blown crises" (Glantz, 1996a). While the focus of the following analysis is on food security and economic reform issues, and how they influenced the 1991/92 drought's outcome, the reader must keep in mind the broader regional, institutional and historical forces that provide the context for drought response in Southern Africa.

In this section, we identify the conditions that existed leading up to the 1991/92 drought, conditions that greatly affected events during and after the drought. While certain climatic events can be predicted with greater accuracy, and in timelier fashion than ever before, the complexity of issues involved in any particular country's response to drought makes the process of estimating the value of such forecasts an extremely difficult and imprecise endeavor. The following section addresses this issue, using as case studies, the SADC region.

4.1. Regional Food Security Policy and Early Warning

o The target for early warning information in 1991/92 was not individual farmers but higher level decision makers who could take action to increase food supply through imports and aid.

The planning of national food supplies from one harvest to the next is undertaken by all countries. Planning involves grains in storage as well as crops in the field. This information may focus only on the national scale. It can also focus on local areas' food balance. Numerous organizations exist in Southern Africa that keep track of food supplies and provide early warning of potential food shortages.

Regional Organizations

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a regional organization formed in August 1992. Today, it consists of twelve member states: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The primary purpose of SADC is to promote economic and political cooperation among Southern African nations ("SADCC: Summit -- Transformation into SADC," 1992).

SADC's predecessor organization was the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC), which was established in April 1980. SADCC's mission was to promote economic development in the states of Southern Africa so that they may reduce their dependence on South Africa's apartheid government (de la Torres and Kelly, 1992). The 1991/92 Southern African drought occurred during the transition from SADCC to SADC. At the time of the drought, there were only ten member states; Mauritius and the Republic of South Africa (RSA) had not been admitted into the organization.

SADC members have identified several areas of regional concern, including food security. They delegated responsibility for this important area to Zimbabwe, because it has been a major regional surplus maize producer and exporter. The Lusaka Accord of 1980 defined food security as a critical goal toward economic liberation of SADC countries from RSA, which at that time pursued its apartheid policies. Despite regional opposition to apartheid, the RSA regularly supplied maize to South Africa Customs Union (SACU) countries like Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia.

SADC's original food security goals included increasing food availability through greater domestic production, expanded grain storage, and reduction in post-harvest losses (Thompson, 1993). The community's objectives changed dramatically when the region's largest maize supplier, the RSA, joined SADC in August 1994. This move was taken after the apartheid government allowed free elections and Nelson Mandela was elected.

SADC's Food Security Technical and Administrative Unit (FSTAU) is charged with coordinating regional activities related to food, and administers three programs directly concerned with regional food security: (1) the Regional Early Warning System (REWS), (2) the Regional Remote Sensing Project and (3) the Regional Food Security Database Project. Only the first two were in operation at the time of the 1991/92 drought.

The Regional Early Warning System (REWS) consists of National Early Warning Units (NEWUs) located in each member state (usually within the Ministry of Agriculture) and a Regional Early Warning Unit (REWU) in Harare, Zimbabwe. The main objective of REWS is to provide SADC states and members of the international community with early warning on food insecurity in the region. They regularly monitor food production, supplies and requirements. REWS produces and disseminates the "Quarterly Food Security Bulletin" as well as monthly updates. The information contained in the bulletins is based on information from the NEWUs. The REWU uses this information to draw up regional food security prospects.

The objective of SADC's Regional Remote Sensing Project is to enhance national and regional capabilities in remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems, particularly so these technologies may be used in early warning and food security. During the growing season, it provides monthly information on crop growth and development and the moisture potential of clouds. The remote sensing project works closely with REWS and often provides information on a drought situation, before the REWU receives such information from the NEWUs.

Information from SADC's REWS and Remote Sensing Project is distributed to a wide audience including government decision makers, major international food donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Union (EU), the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), and other relief agencies, such as UNICEF. The purpose of the information is to provide early warning of a potential drought situation so that decision makers can secure food supplies to cover projected deficits.

In 1991/92, "early" warning for food security meant providing information on food supply and demand so that governments, donors and relief agencies could make plans for humanitarian and other interventions as soon as possible. "Early" warning refers to the harvest at the end of the growing season rather than to planting crops at the beginning of the season. The target for early warning information in 1991/92 was not individual farmers but higher level decision makers who could take action to increase food supply through imports and aid. Often several months are required to move food shipments from the point of origin to the target, at-risk population. In this respect, many assessments claim the early warning system was a success. For example, USAID concluded in its March 1992 review of the drought situation:

The regional and national early warning systems have worked, giving governments and donors sufficient lead time to plan and implement relief programs and avoid loss of life (USAID, 1992:i).

Food Security Objectives

While the early warning systems are geared to identify potential climate-related disruptions of normal levels of food production, chronic hunger exists throughout the region. In addition, some countries in the SADC region are food-deficit countries. Botswana, for example, is a food-deficit country in terms of its limited agricultural lands and it has little choice but to import a majority of its food needs during both drought and non-drought years. Due to an arid climate and lack of arable land, Botswana produces only 23 percent of its cereal consumption requirements. It can afford cereal imports from the proceeds of its export-oriented mineral sector. Other SADC countries with large annual net imports of food include Lesotho, Angola, and Mozambique (these countries import over 50 percent of domestic food needs annually) (von Braun and Polino, 1990). Mozambique and Angola have been food-deficit countries because of war-related problems. Zambia also imports moderate to large amounts of food, usually between 15 and 50 percent of production.

A controversial question often arises in food-security planning -- should governments stabilize food prices? In the long-run, a liberalized market (that is, without government intervention) allows prices to achieve efficient transactions between producers and consumers. In theory, free-market trade encourages a country, for example Zimbabwe, to take advantage of its maize production, and realize higher returns by exporting it to foreign markets. It would then import other goods it is not as efficient at producing. Staple foods in developing countries, however, are too important for food security to view in such a simple framework.

With a fully liberalized market, prices would fluctuate and real incomes decline. Many households would not have access to food, introducing risks of famine (Drèze and Sen, 1989; Sen, 1981). Zimbabwe and Zambia are particularly sensitive to such effects, because they have large climate-related variations in staple food production. Prices fluctuate under free-market conditions, because there is an inelastic demand for staple foods (i.e. demand for the goods does not change very much in response to price changes because they are essential commodities) (Pinckney, 1993). Food is one of the costliest items in the budget of poor rural farmers. Thus, when prices go up, real income for this group goes down. In Zimbabwe, between 50 and 100 percent of farm households in dry areas are net purchasers of grain. According to a 1988/89 survey, urban milled maize meal accounted for 79 to 92 percent of total grain purchases, but only 24 to 37 percent of total grain consumption (Jayne and Chisvo, 1990).

Sub-Saharan African governments often support the food distribution system within their countries. They are inclined to provide "adequate" food supplies for the many subsistence households, and so food provision is driven by strong political (as well as humanitarian) motives, rather than economic efficiency. The government is able to provide expensive storage operations (the capital and annual costs of cereal storage can amount to 15 to 25 percent of the stock's value) and grain-trading functions that most farmers couldn't afford to undertake themselves (Pinckney, 1993). However, subsidized central intervention in agricultural markets is an inefficient use of resources; while guaranteeing some level of food supply, it eventually causes a decline in the entire sector.

Regional Production

o SADC's maize production for the 1990/91 growing season was below average. This prompted REWS to predict a three million tonne grain shortfall as early as March 1991, well before the 1991/92 harvest.

The maize-growing season in the SADC region runs from October to April/May. Farmers usually prepare their fields during the southern hemisphere's spring rains in October/November and plant their crops in December. Typically, there is a two-week dry spell in early January, which often coincides with the critical flowering period for maize. The rains resume by late January and continue through February/March. The maize harvest begins in April and can continue for some months. Cereal production for several Southern African nations during the 1980s is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 4.1 Cereal production in Southern Africa, 1983-1994 (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 1994).

Maize production in the SADC region during the 1990/91 growing season was below average. In March 1991, before the 1991/92 harvest, REWS predicted a three million tonne grain shortfall. SADC's Food Security Technical and Administrative Unit (FSTAU) raised the issue of a shortfall at the August 1991 annual SADC summit meeting (SADC/FSTAU, 1993) and in October, the UN FAO, too, warned that food supplies in the region were precariously low (UN FAO, 1991).

4.2. Zimbabwe's Food Security Policy

o Throughout the 1980s, Zimbabwe played an important role in fulfilling regional food security objectives.

o In the late 1980s, Zimbabwe transformed its maize marketing structure, consolidating storage of maize reserves and requiring farmers to market their crops through the Grain Marketing Board.

Throughout the 1980s, Zimbabwe helped fulfill the regional food security objectives laid out by SADC by regularly exporting its surplus maize to deficit countries like Malawi, Mozambique and, at times, Zambia. It also regularly supplied maize to famine prone countries such as Ethiopia. Donor agencies often purchased maize from Zimbabwe, and sent it as aid to other African countries in need of food supplies (known as triangular transactions).

At the time of the 1991/92 drought, Zimbabwe was shifting to a more liberalized grain marketing policy -- a result of economic reform. Prior to the drought, it had attempted to provide food to its own populace, maintained a strategic maize reserve in case of drought, and used central storage and marketing facilities to export within the region. The Grain Marketing Board (GMB) is the centralized governing body that traditionally has controlled producer prices, access to and prices of inputs, the marketing and transport of maize, and consumer prices. It is one example of numerous parastatals that are heavily involved in the economy.

A crucial transformation in the maize marketing structure occurred by the late 1980s, when the Government of Zimbabwe (GOZ) consolidated storage of maize reserves, removing capacity from rural areas. Farmers were encouraged to market their crops to the GMB (Thompson, 1993; UN FAO, 1996).

Maize Production Trend

o In the 1980s, Zimbabwe's area devoted to grain production began to decline as large-scale producers discovered greater financial incentives to grow cash crops such as tobacco and cotton.

Although meteorological drought occurred three times during the 1980s (1981-82, 1982-84, and 1987-88), Zimbabwe's production reached extremely high levels during the decade. After Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, the Mugabe government increased the level of participation of rural farmers in the agricultural economy. It created smallholder credit programs, increased the 1980/81 prices paid to producers, and made improved equipment and technology available.

By the end of 1986, the country's maize reserve was at a peak of nearly 2 million tonnes and, even though 1987/88 was a drought season, it managed to export 500,000 tonnes of maize (Rohrback, 1988). At the time, Zimbabwe could have covered at least six months of domestic consumption with its reserves, which would have required one million tonnes of grain, and it would have had the time needed to arrange for imports to supplement its food needs.

In 1986, as food production was falling in several Southern African countries, SADC changed its regional food security approach by stressing more cash-crop production, foreign exchange earnings, marketing of grain, and household food security. Zimbabwe's area devoted to grain production began to decline as large-scale producers discovered greater financial incentives to grow cash crops like tobacco and cotton (Figure 4.2). The commercial sector accounted for 82 percent of the maize sold to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) in 1981/82. By 1988/89 it accounted for only 39 percent (GMB, 1991). A ballooning budget deficit in addition to trade restrictions prevented Zimbabwe and its farmers from importing new machinery, spare parts, or technologies, thereby contributing to declining production.

Figure 4.2 Zimbabwe's maize production by sector (from GMB)

In addition, as more emphasis was placed on the communal/rural sector, by 1991 this sector's maize yields were only 16 percent of commercial farm yields. The commercial sector received 70 to 75 percent of the total fertilizer used in the country, 85 percent of the country's available credit, and has the added benefit of irrigation technology (Shapouri et al., 1992). A large chunk of staple food production and supply, thus, was in the hands of Zimbabwe's communal farmers, who had been without advanced technologies and who had been forced to farm increasingly marginal lands -- thus becoming very prone to drought.

Maize Stocks

o Zimbabwe's maize reserves had declined drastically in the years before the 1991/92 drought. As a result, there was not enough maize to provide any significant relief to its own people.

o The reduction in Zimbabwe's maize stocks was the result of its economic reform program. Export levels were increased in order to reduce storage costs and producer prices were kept low in order to prevent high production years that would only serve to "burden" the government with greater amounts of surplus maize.

Global food shortages, as a result of drought in the early 1980s, were one of the factors that contributed to the overstocking of reserve-food supplies later in the decade in surplus-producing countries like Zimbabwe. However, when they were needed, stocks were rarely in the right place or in good condition (Almond et al., 1987). Large reserve stocks tend to affect trade adversely, and often are considered an inefficient use of funds. These stocks are inaccessible to people without money, unless given away, which helps explain what many experts have called Zimbabwe's "food insecurity paradox." Jayne and Chisvo (1991) comment on the paradox of having mountains of maize in reserve during the latter 1980s, and at the same time pockets of chronic malnutrition. In Matabeleland North and South Provinces, for example, crop production is typically poor and a large number of households are food deficit, even when the national food supply is in surplus.

The GMB, which regulated crop production prices before liberalization, set them higher than export parity (world market price minus transport costs to farming areas -- i.e., the price farmers would get on the world market if they exported directly to it) in order to encourage production of adequate supplies. Large-scale producers were subsidized, but, as mentioned earlier, communal producers that were not surplus producers lost out because they had to buy additional grain for household consumption. This grain was relatively expensive, coming through the marketing board's economically inefficient "one-way distribution" system. With this approach, grain was purchased by the GMB, transported to urban areas for milling, and the flour sold back to rural areas. Consumer prices ranged from ten to eighty percent higher than the original producer purchase price (Jayne and Chisvo, 1991).

The producer price offered for maize is very important. It influences how much a farmer decides to plant, to invest in the planted crop (e.g., fertilizer use), and to sell. The producer price can also cost the government money, as such prices are relatively and artificially high compared to international prices, and the government sells to consumers at lower than market prices to ensure food security. In Zimbabwe, real producer prices had been declining up to the 1991/92 drought.

Food-security policy relates in large measure to drought occurrences and how a country can respond, with six to eight months warning, using some combination of its available and food reserves. But, what is a country's ideal maize reserve? As shown in Figure 4.3, Zimbabwe's maize reserves declined drastically over the several-year period before the 1991-92 drought. In Zimbabwe's case, there was not enough maize to provide any significant relief to its own people in case of drought. In other words, Zimbabwe was not in an economic state to comfortably withstand the consequences of drought.

Figure 4.3 Zimbabwe's maize production and stock levels (from GMB).

As another example, Zambia's food security policy contributed to its uncertain maize reserves during this drought period. Because of a large urban population that greatly affects political decisions, Zambia has traditionally subsidized consumer food prices to a greater extent than any other Southern African country. This has led to the illegal export of maize to neighboring countries where maize commands higher prices. While obviously difficult to document illegal trade, it is thought that 110,000 tonnes of maize left Zambia as part of this unofficial cross-border trade during the second half of 1991 (SADCC/REWS, 1991).

Budget reduction is a main thrust of most World Bank/IMF reform programs, and already was encouraged in Zimbabwe before its official Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) began in 1991. The World Bank, IMF, USAID, and other donors were interested in economic liberalization, which included less government involvement in maize marketing and storage. Thus, one response to Zimbabwe's large maize stocks came in conjunction with the introduction of economic reform. In 1990 and 1991, it became more evident that through heavy exporting, stocks were being whittled away from previous record amounts.

Producer-prices also were kept low in order to prevent high production years that would only serve to "burden" the government with greater amounts of surplus maize. The 1990/91 crop was below average -- a result of both the impacts of a longer-term production decline and poor rains. By 1991, the GMB's intake and reserves had fallen off. Without any knowledge or expectation of an impending drought situation (especially not a severe, region-wide one), the planted area in the upcoming season was noticeably reduced. This put Zimbabwe in an ever-worsening food supply situation by the end of 1991.

Maize Exports

o During the 1991/92 growing season, Zimbabwe exported 35 percent of its 656,000 tonne opening stock. This was a significant amount of reserves in light of the season's predicted drop in production.

o Even before the planting of the 1991/92 crop, Zimbabwe faced food shortage problems due to its heavy exports in the previous years.

Zimbabwe was apparently caught off-guard both in its lack of strategic planning for a regional scale, severe drought and for the possibility of having to import large quantities of food. It was accustomed to serving as a reliable exporter of maize within the SADC region, as a substitute for the reliance of SADC countries on Southern Africa's major bread-basket producer -- the Republic of South Africa.

Having had little experience presided at a time when regional drought hit hard, the country suddenly had to organize and finance large amounts of imports. A synopsis of its past exporting behavior is shown in Table 4.1. While it has been widely reported that Zimbabwe exported large quantities of maize in mid-1991 -- as much as one million tonnes -- it had actually sold off most of its reserves before that time. It did, however, export 230,000 tonnes during the 1991/92 growing season, or 35 percent of its 656,000 tonne opening stock, a significant amount of reserves in light of the season's predicted drop in production.

Time Period Exports (tonnes
Calendar Year
January - March
April - December
Calendar Year
January - March
April - June
July - December
Calendar Year
Calendar Year
Calendar Year

Table 4.1. Timing of Zimbabwe's maize exports.6 (Central Statistics Office, 1996).

Table 4.1 indicates extremely high exports during the 1989/90 season, especially between January and March of 1990 when close to 500,000 tonnes were exported. Another 320,000 tonnes were exported during 1990/91. As noted earlier, one can only speculate about the reasons for such large maize exports. The only quick-fix option might have been the planting of a different crop mix and drought-resistant seeds, since there were sufficient rains (over two months) to support adequate production of some crops.

The 230,000 tonnes exported in 1991/92 went mainly to Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia. Of this total, 220,000 tonnes were exported between April and December of 1991, the period leading right into the drought. Many of these exports were committed to buyers early in the marketing year, before forecasts of the upcoming grain situation had been made. Maize was shipped to Malawi in November of 1991, likely to relieve the food shortages experienced by close to one million Mozambican refugees. Maize also was reportedly sent to Zambia in latter 1991 in order to assist Zambia's President Kaunda in his bid for re-election.

Regardless of the motivations behind the reduction in stocks, the fact is that even before the planting of the 1991/92 crop, Zimbabwe faced food shortage problems. It is difficult to say whether the GOZ was prodded by economic reform interests to trim storage costs, or felt compelled to fulfill its regional supplier role by exporting maize to politically strategic countries like Mozambique and Zambia, or was reluctant to admit to the decline in its maize production (i.e., admitting a failed national food security policy). However, it can be said that these are long-term issues and that drought forecasting should consider the broader economic environment together with such early warning variables as soil moisture, grain supplies, foreign exchange reserves, and area planted.

4.3. Summary

o Zimbabwe exported 220,000 tonnes of maize between April and December 1991--a time when regional food security officials were predicting grain shortfalls stemming from the poor 1990/91 harvest.

The 1991/92 Southern African drought occurred in the context of numerous historical developments in the SADC region. Regional maize production in the 1990/91 growing season was below average. Maize production levels in Zimbabwe had been declining since 1986 as farmers found greater incentives to grow cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. In addition, regional food stocks were on the decline. This was due to efforts to decrease budget deficits as well as a shift in regional food security policy away from physical stocks to the production of cash crops to boost export earnings. Another important historical trend that affected the impact of the 1991/92 drought in Southern Africa was maize exports from Zimbabwe. Beginning in 1990, Zimbabwe began exporting extremely large quantities of maize. Perhaps most importantly for this case study, Zimbabwe exported 220,000 tonnes of maize between April and December 1991--a time when regional food security officials were predicting grain shortfalls stemming from the poor 1990/91 harvest. These developments set the stage for what was to occur in 1991/92.

Foot Notes

6. There is conflicting information on maize exports. We have chosen to use these statistics instead of those produced by the GMB. However, GMB statistics are provided in Appendix B.

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