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Zimbabwe Seeks Wiser Ways to Use Water Amid Erratic Rains

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Bensen Muzamba knows the cost of water only too well. He runs a maize farm outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, but because of poor rains at the start of the season, he was forced to purchase water to irrigate his crop – something he can ill afford.

As with many farmers across the country, he relies on rainfall – and struggles if it does not come when expected.

“It’s tough when you have to buy water … and sellers demand foreign currency,” Muzamba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, inspecting maize plants on his land about 15 km (9 miles) from Harare.

As Zimbabwe struggles with the fallout from a slow start to the rainy season, bulk suppliers that deliver water in tankers have increased their prices, citing the high cost of extracting groundwater.

And with dam levels down – though recent rains have helped – cities like Bulawayo have been exploring ways to curb water consumption in homes.

Meanwhile, violent clashes have erupted over shortages of fuel and a government-imposed fuel price hike, while U.S. dollars, one of Zimbabwe’s main currencies, are hard to come by.

Groundwater is essential to ensure farmers can grow enough food crops. But some borehole owners in Harare have been selling 1,000 liters of water for about $30, twice the going rate in October.

The Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), a government agency, charges $10 for 1,000 liters from state-owned dams – but even that is expensive for farmers used to free rain.

Washington Zhakata, director of the climate change department at the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement, said declining rainfall in the past couple of decades had caused Zimbabwe’s groundwater levels to fall and shortened the time periods in which water is available.

This, he said, had affected farming nationwide.

“The distribution of rainfall across the country has been uneven, coupled with extended dryness,” Zhakata said by email, linking the shifts to global warming.

Average temperatures around the world have already risen about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial times, and southern Africa is expected to see drier conditions as warming continues.

Sobona Mtisi, an independent researcher on water and climate change in Zimbabwe, said rainfall had been low but the nation had enough groundwater stocks to meet rising demand.

Still, Zimbabwe would benefit from better methods for managing its groundwater, he added.

“(It) needs to be managed sustainably through an effective and evidence-based groundwater policy,” said the UK-based Mtisi.

Despite rains having picked up this month, forecasters’ concerns persist that an El Nino weather pattern could result in below-average rainfall this season, said Tamburiro Pasipangodya of the Zimbabwe Meteorological Services Department.

Up to early January, most parts of the country had received less than 75 percent of the long-term average rainfall, and a smaller amount than in the past three seasons, she noted.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network said seasonal rainfall was set to continue across southern Africa this week, bringing some relief from dryness, including to parts of Zimbabwe.

TURNING OFF THE TAP

As rains become more erratic, Zimbabwe is looking to irrigation to cushion its food supplies against drought.

In announcing the 2019 budget in November, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube allocated nearly $1 billion to the agriculture ministry to fund irrigation and borehole rehabilitation, among other measures to improve water sources for farmers.

And in a bid to deal with the long-term effects of patchy rainfall, the southwestern city of Bulawayo is proposing technological interventions to cut water consumption.

In the last week of December, water levels in Bulawayo’s dams dropped to 60 percent, from 65 percent in early November, ZINWA said.

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The city has long turned to groundwater for relief during dry spells, but a recent council report said the municipality had failed to maintain its boreholes, compromising future water availability.

This month, the Bulawayo authorities said they were looking at installing water flow regulators in homes.

According to the city’s director of engineering services, Simela Dube, the devices would be part of water management efforts allowing consumers and the municipality to save water.

The regulators would restrict consumption to pre-determined levels decided by households, depending on how much water they need, he told council chambers.

Residents would be able to use between 1 and 5 cubic meters of water per day, compared with now when can turn on their taps at will even if they cannot pay their water bill.

However, there are concerns the new proposal will meet resistance from customers who have previously rejected pre-paid water meters, said city councillor Sikhulilekile Moyo, calling for more consultation.

Jacob Mafela of the Bulawayo Residents Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that schemes to save water were generally welcome.

“We support all initiatives which at the end of the day benefit residents,” he said. “It is historically known that the city faces water challenges, but we need consensus.”

Meanwhile, as El Nino-linked rainfall uncertainty continues, farmers like Muzamba – most of whom lack insurance against crop failures – are despairing of help.

“We will keep asking government for assistance – though we know the money is not there,” he said.

  • Marko Phiri

Agriculture

Uganda Sees 11% Growth In Sugar Output This Year

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Uganda expects sugar output to rise 11% this year as three mills under construction in the country’s northern and eastern regions come online, officials say.

“Production is currently at 450,000 metric tons. When three new factories that are under construction and development start producing, we will go up to a half a million metric tons,” Uganda’s Trade and Industry Minister Amelia Kyambadde says in an interview with FORBES AFRICA.

The East African country is only able to consume 360,000 tons per year, leaving a surplus for export in a region that’s grappling with deficits. Uganda exports sugar to the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and Tanzania.

Underpinning the country’s sugar sector are millers, including Kakira Sugar Works, the largest producer. Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited – Lugazi and Kinyara Sugar Works are the other largest players.

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While this growth in output is imperative, the government is keen to see diversification in production to include industrial sugar as the country seeks to save its foreign exchange, Kyambadde says. 

“I see a bright future,” she adds, “but producers also need to diversify and produce the finer sugar. All of them are producing the bigger crystals but finer sugar for production is what we would like them to start producing.

“At the moment, we are importing that finer sugar.

“So that has been our concern with them, that why don’t you diversify and start producing the sugar that’s ready for production,” she says.

But these efforts have largely been stalled by Uganda’s high power tariffs, according to Kyambadde.

“They (millers) say from this level, the ordinary sugar, they have to have another line that would make it finer. That means the consumption of power definitely is higher,” she says.

“So that is one of the challenges; that the costs of production are so high,” she said, adding that new power plants will reduce costs to an ideal five US cents/KW.

Uganda is also looking to establish new laws to govern the sugar sector but disagreements over exclusivity clauses relating to purchase of cane from farmers abound.

In March, President Yoweri Museveni declined to assent to the Sugar Act of 2016 that was passed by Parliament in November last year. His spokesman, Don Wanyama, says the president is concerned about the proximity of millers.

“It’s going to antagonize the old sugar players,” Wanyama says. “It’s (the act) not going to be assented to,” he says.

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“We hope this issue will be corrected now that the bill is being sent back to parliament,” says Jim Kabeho, the Chairman of Uganda Sugar Manufacturers Association, the largest industry lobby.

“Farming constitutes 60 percent of our costs; yet someone without a single tractor and using cheap old machinery just wants to come and buy from your farmers,” he said in a phone interview.

Kabeho, also a director at Kakira and a board member at regional business lobby, the East Africa Business Council, warns that Uganda has lessons to learn from Kenya which allowed “market distortions” in the name of allowing competition only to end up with less production and having to rely on imports.

Yet for Ibrahim Baliitamuto, a cane grower in the eastern district of Mayuge, all that matters is price stability.

 “It’s very easy to make a fortune from sugarcane if the prices offered by factories are not changed very often,” Baliitamuto says.

“You can’t tell me about growing maize (corn) when I have a choice of sugarcane.”

Kyambadde says in returning the law to parliament, the president was being mindful of the big players.

“He thinks that the output of the small players is negligible, but we are still discussing that,” she says.

-Joseph Burite

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Why Do Zebras Have Stripes? They Make Bad Landing Strips For Flies

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Scientists are providing new evidence to answer the longstanding question about why zebras have stripes. It appears stripes make terrible landing strips, bamboozling the fierce blood-sucking flies that try to feast on zebras and carry deadly diseases.

Researchers on Wednesday described experiments demonstrating that horse flies have a difficult time landing on zebras while easily landing on uniformly colored horses. In one experiment, the researchers put cloth coats bearing striped patterns on horses and observed that fewer flies landed on them than when the same horses wore single-color coats.

“We showed that horse flies approach zebras and uniformly colored horses at similar rates but that they fail to land on zebras – or striped horse coats – because they fail to decelerate properly, and so fly past them or literally bump into them and bounce off,” said behavioral ecologist Tim Caro of the University of California-Davis, lead author of the research published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Close cousins to horses and donkeys, the world’s three zebra species, known for their black-and-white striped bodies, roam Africa’s savannas eating a variety of grasses. Their stripe patterns vary among individuals, with no two alike.

There had been four main hypotheses about the advantages zebras accrued by evolving stripes: camouflage to avoid large predators; a social function like individual recognition; thermoregulation, with stripes setting up convection currents along the animal’s back; and thwarting biting fly attacks.

“Only the last stands up to scrutiny,” Caro said. “Most biologists involved with research on mammal coloration accept that this is the reason that zebras have stripes.”

African horse flies carry diseases such as trypanosomiasis and African horse sickness that cause wasting and can be fatal.

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The researchers videoed horse flies as they tried to prey on captive zebras and domestic horses at a livery in North Somerset, England. Stripes did not deter flies from a distance, as they circled horses and zebras at similar rates. But the flies managed to land on zebras less than a quarter as often.

University of Bristol biologist and study co-author Martin How said stripes may dazzle flies somehow once the insects venture close enough to see them with their low-resolution eyes.

“In addition to stripes that prevent controlled landings by horse flies, zebras are constantly swishing their tail and may run off if horse flies do land successfully, so they are also using behavioral means to prevent flies probing for blood,” Caro said. -Reuters

-Will Dunham

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Agriculture

Watch Your Step: Kenyan Herders Mark Out Disease-Free Grazing Routes

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The morning calm of Losirien valley was broken by a cow bell tinkling as Benjamin Kerei led his herd of about 50 animals down a parched trail alongside a dry riverbed in southwest Kenya.

On the 10-km (6-mile) journey to a nearby grazing ground, the 24-year-old was on the lookout for fresh wildlife tracks.

Like pastoralists all over the East African country, Kerei needs to keep his cattle away from wild animals to avoid exposing them to infectious diseases, some of which can be deadly to both livestock and humans.

With droughts and floods shrinking the amount of habitable land in Kenya, the search for enough food and water is driving people and wildlife deeper into each other’s territories.

As a result, cases of infectious diseases that are passed from animals to humans – called zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses – are on the rise, said Patrick Kimani, chief executive of the Kenya Livestock Producers Association.

In recent years, some herders have found a simple way of keeping their livestock and themselves healthy.

They search for grazing routes that are not used by wildlife, and mark them for others to follow.

In the southern part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Kerei – who began using the method two years ago – said zoonotic diseases were very common but herders did not know how to treat them.

“This is why we choose to use safe grazing routes to reduce (the) chances of livestock coming into contact with sick wild animals,” he said.

WIDESPREAD CASES

In Kenya, there are at least 36 known zoonotic diseases, according to Samuel Kahariri, chairman of the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA). The most serious include brucellosis, Rift Valley fever, rabies and anthrax.

Most of these diseases are widespread among pastoralist communities, Kahariri added.

Brucellosis, for example, is one of the most common zoonotic infections globally.

Mainly transmitted from cattle, sheep, goats, elk and deer, it can be passed to humans through the consumption of raw meat or unpasteurised milk, causing flu-like symptoms.

Sam Kariuki, director of the Centre for Microbiology Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, estimated that around 750 Kenyans contract brucellosis every year.

But spotty record-keeping makes it impossible to get an accurate picture of how zoonotic diseases spread, he noted.

The data does show that the number of brucellosis cases has increased in the past few years, said James Akoko, a researcher studying the disease at Maseno University in Kisumu County.

Akoko said the negative effects of climate change combined with a growing population meant there was more contact between humans, wild animals and livestock than ever before.

“People are encroaching into areas that were meant for wild animals, and that kind of contact can create opportunity for the diseases to spread across different hosts,” he said.

BRICK TOWERS

Pastoralists like Kerei are working hard to prevent that.

Once they identify routes that do not cross into wildlife territory, they mark them out with small brick towers.

Besides checking for tracks and faeces, they know the presence of big cats like lions and tick-eating birds indicate that grazing animals such as buffalo and deer have moved into an area, said Paul Gathitu, a Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman.

When that happens, the brick towers are dismantled, signaling to others that the route has become risky.

“It is a difficult task ensuring that our livestock do not share pasture or watering points with wildlife,” said Kerei. “But it is the only cheap and readily available measure we have.”

For now, the technique is used mainly by Maasai tribes in the Rift Valley and the Borana in northern Kenya, said Abdulaziz Jama of the Pastoralist Capacity Development Programme.

Anecdotal evidence from local elders confirms the technique works where there are no other options to fight diseases, he added.

“Use of safe grazing routes is one of the many (types of) indigenous knowledge that have been helping marginalized communities battle climate change and zoonotic diseases where the national government has failed,” he said.

REAL-TIME ALERTS?

The government is struggling to manage the spread of zoonotic diseases partly because of the difficulty it faces in tracking them as herders move from one location to another, said the KVA’s Kahariri.

The problem is exacerbated by poor road and communication networks in areas where pastoralists live, making it hard for them to share information with the government when a zoonotic disease appears, Kahariri added.

Ezekiel Kiamba, from Ildamat village in southeast Kenya, said officials should do more to support herders.

The 32-year-old farmer does not use safe grazing routes to protect his 80 cows. Instead, he hires a private vet to regularly check and vaccinate his herd, at $20 per dose.

He would like to see the government use modern technology to send real-time information about outbreaks to rural communities.

“Some of us pastoralists have smartphones which the government could use to work with us and help manage zoonotic diseases,” he said. “I am still waiting for this to happen.” -Reuters

-Kagondu Njagi

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