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Weathering the climate crisis in Zambia

In Zambia, nearly 375,000 people have been affected by the climate-fueled floods in between January and March 2023, including families in this rural IDP camp. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

In Zambia, nearly 375,000 people have been affected by the climate-fueled floods in between January and March 2023, including families in this rural IDP camp. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Mable slowly lowers the bucket into the well. She looks down the hole to see how much water is left. Today, she has to lower the bucket a little bit deeper than the days before.

“I am worried that the well will run dry in only a few weeks,” she says. When this happens, which it does often, she and her neighbors must walk five or more miles to find clean drinking water.

Mable lives in a remote village in southwestern Zambia at the foot of a river, its banks lined with vegetable gardens and meadows.

Because of climate change, extreme weather events are on the rise around the world, and, here, high temperatures, little rainfall and long periods of drought are now part of people’s everyday lives.

When the heavy rains come, the dry soil can’t absorb enough water, and Mable’s river — on a normal day picturesque and idyllic — floods.

Mable, a member of the CARE project, getting water from the village well. Photo: Denise Schneider/CARE

The main source of income for Mable’s village is agriculture, as it is for 60 percent of the Zambian population. This makes the whole country dependent on the weather.

“The money comes from what we harvest. If there is not enough water, the harvest is scarce and there is not enough income,” Mable explains.

The river is their lifeline, but it is much shallower than it seems at first glance. Just two months without rain and it dries out completely.

Gladness in front of her vegetable garden. Photo: Denise Schneider/CARE

Onions for an ox

Gladness Siakwale, 23, and her husband cultivate one of the fields next to the river close to Mable’s garden. Gladness’s family of six grows tomatoes, cabbage, red onions, and beans, among other crops, and they live off the money they earn from selling their vegetables in the next town.

“Red onions are the most profitable,” she says. “Tomatoes, however, are very susceptible to pests.”

Gladness and Mable are both part of CARE’s community climate project that looks for longer-term resiliency solutions to local climate impacts.

For Gladness, crop diversification has helped her weather pest infestation, as well as drought. Diversification allows some plants to continue growing when others are infested, or when conditions are less favorable. CARE provides drought-resistant seeds and trains farmers in maximizing yields, despite the adverse climatic conditions.

Gladness says she is especially proud that they were recently able to buy an ox cart by selling their onions.

“I hope that soon we can expand our field and make even more profit,” she says.

Febby working in the communities tree nursery. Photo: Denise Schneider/CARE

Small innovations, big impacts

Febby Nachibanga folds the black plastic containers up and starts scooping the mud spiked with cow dung into it. With her thumb she presses the seed into the soil and starts watering.

In a yard full of little plants in different sizes and ages, she lines up the new seedling next to the others in the tree nursery.

Febby’s hands graze nimbly over the small seedlings. She plucks weeds while explaining: “The tree nursery is very important to our village. It allows us to improve our income and protect our agriculture at the same time.”

CARE provides the seedlings, and the villagers work together in the nursery. They fill the containers with soil, water the plants, and pull weeds.

Febby says everyone is keen to ensure that the trees grow healthy, because they’re all dependent on their success.

The area around the river is no longer as forested as it once was. The tree population was massively and unsustainably deforested for charcoal and tobacco production.

“Without trees there is no shade or water,” says Mable.

The long tree roots bind important moisture in the soil. Falling leaves fertilize the fields of Gladness, Mable, Febby, and their neighbors. Their cattle can also be fed with the dried leaves. Fallen branches serve as firewood for the community.

Febby explains: “By selling some of the trees that we grow in the nursery, we make profit and are able to build a second income in addition to our vegetable gardens.”

Another measure proves that even small innovations can have a big effect. Mable points to four sticks sticking out of the ground: “There is a silo underneath the ground. We store our corn here to protect it from moisture and pests.”

In the dry season, the corn serves as animal feed for the livestock.

“We learned that from CARE,” she explains.

Buumba with her orange maize. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

Selecting for resilience

“This is the only crop that survived the floods,” Buumba, 45, a mother of seven and a small-scale farmer, says, pointing out her fields of orange maize.

“The normal white maize plants were destroyed by the floods.”

Orange maize is a vitamin A-enriched crop developed to combat malnutrition, particularly the “hidden hunger” caused by diets lacking in essential nutrients like vitamin A, iron, and zinc.

Researchers developed this bright orange maize through selective breeding to naturally produce higher-than-normal amounts of vitamin A, without genetic modification.

Despite some potential acceptance issues due to cultural preferences for white maize in places like Zambia, early studies have shown that it’s catching on. Buumba has been pleased.

“When we went out to the fields to inspect the damage, we were very surprised but also happy that the orange maize was still standing.”

More than half of children under five here are vitamin A-deficient. Pregnant women are also vulnerable to vitamin A-deficiency, which contributes to high rates of infection, poor pregnancy outcomes like stillbirths and neonatal deaths, and stunting.

With orange maize, families here can cook the traditional Nshima, a type of polenta, which is one of the country’s staple foods.

“We use the harvest for our meals,” Buumba says. “With the crops that I have now, we will be able to have three meals a day for the next two months.”

Buumba in her field. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

From drought to flood in an instant

In Buumba’s field, a growing maize plant requires about a half gallon of water per day during the peak growing season, and during a dry spells, that’s impossible.

But sometimes, no water is better than too much.  When it finally rains in Zambia, it often floods.

Between 1980 and 2020, Zambia experienced 21 flash floods affecting many hundreds of thousands of people. Most recently at the beginning of 2023, a single flood has displaced more than 4,000 people in Buumba’s district alone.

She feels lucky that her house wasn’t damaged, but her fields were under water and there was little left for her to salvage.

“The water came so quickly and caught us off-guard,” she remembers.

A 2022 study showed that only four to six days of flooding reduces maize grain yields by 21 to 35 percent.

Adding the stress of flash floods can destroy the plants either through heavy water flow or debris that is carried with the water. And often, it doesn’t even have to rain in the area — a dam break or river overflow in a different region can cause a flood.

“In the last couple of years, it has become worse,” says Buumba. “It gets hotter, and rain has become unpredictable.

“It’s either too dry or too wet, we hardly have normal weather anymore.”

“In the last three crop seasons, I hardly had any crops on my fields, harvesting nothing,” she says.

Fennie and family in front of destroyed house. Photo: Sarah Easter/CARE

“No one else is left”

Fennie Mutibo, 85, is stirring in a pot of Nshima in her half-open kitchen, which is separated from her house and lies across the yard. The firewood sizzles.

Fennie is trying to stay dry under the high beams as it has been raining heavily for three full weeks. She adjusts the red wool hat on her head when, suddenly, there’s a loud crack, and the kitchen collapses on her, crushing her leg under one of the heavy beams.

After her kitchen comes her house.

“The soil was too soft to hold the house,” explains Fennie.

She is sitting on the now dry and heat-cracked floor in front of her older sister Theresa’s house, stretching the hurt leg out from her body.

“The house was flooded one day and started tilting, I heard the plates crashing to the ground first. In the night it collapsed.”

She is showing how her house tilted by leaning her whole body to the left. She shows how high her house has been with her hands stretching out to the sky as if she wants to hold up the roof with her bare hands. Not remembering when the house was built, she closes her eyes to think. It was old. One of the oldest in the neighborhood.

“I have been here long. As long as I remember,” she says.

Zambia's Disaster & Mitigation Unit aerial assessments reveal a catastrophic situation in parts of Southern and Central provinces, which requires emergency intervention of both food and non- food items. Photo: DMU

“I have never witnessed something like this. Until now. Rains and floods destroyed our homes. Last year it was my neighbors, this time it hit me,” says Fennie.

She folds her hands together as she speaks. She used to make scones and sell them for 1 Kwacha each, which is around 5 cents. She now has bad eyesight and has no energy to work.

“I cannot do a lot anymore. I ask my neighbors for help. They sometimes bring some water or food.”

When asked if losing her house was the worst she ever experienced, she sighs and shakes her head.

“The worst thing is when you cannot find any food. The collapsed house is just an additional thing in my life,” she says.

1953 was the worst hunger crisis she can remember. But 1985 also was a bad year.

“Now it is more often,” she says. “Every year there is not enough rain, then we do not have enough food. Or there is too much rain, then we also cannot find food and the storages are depleted.”

Since floods destroyed Fennie's house, she lives with her sister Teresa, 88, and her sister's grandchildren. Photo: Denise Schneide/CARE

When hunger strikes, her family’s only food source is Amaranth, a weed that requires little water to grow. It tastes like tender spinach and grows in their garden.

Fennie now lives with her sister Theresa, 88, and her sister’s grandchildren. They all sit on the porch. A walking stick is resting on Theresa’s shoulder as she has trouble walking. Her head is covered by the same wool hat as her sister’s, but hers is black. She nods occasionally while Fennie is speaking. Theresa’s seven children all died from different diseases.

“We take care of the grandchildren, as no one else is left,” says Fennie, waving towards the girl and boy leaning against the cool house wall.

“CARE came three times to us,” says Fennie. The first time to assess the damage and needs. The whole neighborhood was severely hit by the floods. They identified 24 households that have been affected the worst and needed immediate support.

“The second time they came and gave me some pots, canisters, blankets, solar lamps, and chlorine.”

The third time is a cash distribution of 400 Kwacha, which is about $21.

On the question of what she spent her money on, she laughs, “I didn’t spend it yet. I want to use it to rebuild my house. I put it into a small tin box and hold tightly on to it.”

She uses her hands to show how small she folded the money, so it fits snuggly in the tin box. Pressing her hands close to her heart, showing how precious it is to her and how proud she is to have kept it safe. She hopes that she soon can cook Nshima in her own kitchen again, sleep under her own roof and that the next flood will not hit them.

“You never know what will happen,” she says. “But you have to continue anyway.”

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