Muzarabani — Moses Pfebve of Gombera village was just five when he was swept away, trying to cross the flooded Chematohwa River with other young cattle herders on his way to the communal dip tank in early January.
The boys watched helplessly as Pfebve was taken by a narrow river that usually runs dry for at least 10 months of the year, holding fast to the tails of their animals, as the waters raged around them.
Rain of over 30cm in a week had turned the flat lands of Muzarabani into a sea, with rivers overflowing, villagers marooned, homes and crops washed away, and 13 bridges completely destroyed.
A hot, semi-arid rural farming area 300km north of the capital Harare, Muzarabani usually receives less than 40cm of rain during the main rainy season from December to February.
Pfebve’s mother, Chatisai Dzuda, a 35-year-old disabled farmer, was devastated by the loss of her son to the rains, which are usually considered a blessing.
“The picture of Moses floating lifelessly in those waters has never left my mind. I am deeply hurt that I could not do anything to save my son. It is a heavy load to carry,” said the mother of two, trembling with emotion.
Elsewhere in Muzarabani, Matthew Matanhura, three, and his sister Priscilla Matanhura, four, were also swept away by torrential rains that flooded their homestead in Shambakumanja village. The siblings had been left playing under a tree while their parents were out working in the fields.
Climate impacts on Zimbabwean children – from death, hunger and disease to displacement and loss of education – have been largely underestimated or even ignored until now.
Those most at risk are in rural areas where poverty is rife, and access to safe water and sanitation has declined in the past decade and a half.
But that neglect is set to change with the upcoming publication of Zimbabwe’s National Climate Change Response Strategy (NCCRS), which takes their needs into account, experts have told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Work started on the climate strategy in 2012, and it is expected to be released by the end of March, according to Sara Feresu, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Environmental Studies (IES), which is leading the process.
The inclusion of children is mainly thanks to work by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The local office of the children’s agency, in partnership with the IES, carried out a study on the impacts of climate change on children and other vulnerable groups in Zimbabwe.
The preliminary findings of that research, due to be published imminently, have been fed into the NCCRS, which is intended to integrate climate change into Zimbabwe’s budget and development planning.
The UNICEF report will show serious gaps in climate change education in the national curriculum, as well as a lack of financial support and natural assets for children and young people to fall back on when disasters hit, sources say.
HIV and AIDS, in a country with a prevalence rate of 15 percent, have created many child-headed families, which are vulnerable to shocks including climate change, the study will say.
Nonetheless, it also finds that children and young people possess energy and enthusiasm that could be harnessed in climate change responses.
“It is understood that by using a child’s lens to examine adaptation measures to cope with the impact of climate change, it (the research) shall ensure that the relevant issues will be captured in national policies,” Samson Muradzikwa, UNICEF’s chief of social policy, said by email.
The UNICEF study gathered children’s views through questionnaires in schools nationwide, community discussions, workshops with children and youth, and policy dialogues. Baseline surveys and case studies in drought and flood-prone rural areas were also carried out, together with a review of existing policies.
As a result, Muradzikwa said the draft NCCRS includes ways of assessing children’s specific vulnerabilities and identifying how these will be magnified by climate change so that they can be addressed in national responses.
AID IN SHORT SUPPLY
In Muzarabani, that can’t come too soon. Local Member of Parliament Alfred Mufunga told Thomson Reuters Foundation that over 80 children in his constituency were homeless after the floods destroyed 23 houses.
He said no government assistance had been received, although the International Organisation for Migration had provided some food aid, and local churches had given ill-fitting clothes.
At Tokwe-Mukosi dam in Masvingo Province, 400km south of Harare, at least 2,300 children are out of school and unlikely to return soon. In early February, rising waters breached the 680m-high dam wall currently under construction, flooding the river basin and displacing 20,000 people and 18,000 cattle, goats and donkeys.
The floods destroyed schools, homes and other public infrastructure. The central government is now looking for $9 million in international aid to build six new primary schools at Nuanetsi Ranch, where the families are being relocated.
Without donor aid, the government will struggle to deliver the schools, as Zimbabwe has been running a budget deficit averaging 4 percent of gross domestic product since 2009, putting severe limits on capital expenditure.
UNICEF’s Muradzikwa said climate change is slowing Zimbabwe’s progress towards achieving some of the Millennium Development Goals, such as those on reducing poverty and hunger.
It is also hampering the government’s ability to meet commitments under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to provide adequate health care, a safe environment, shelter, education and a balanced diet, he said.
“Protecting the environment and providing for the health, education and development of children are mutually inclusive goals,” Muradzikwa added.
WATER SHORTAGES, DISEASE RISK
Climate change also increases the threat of malaria in tropical regions like Zimbabwe, where one in every three people lives in risk areas. The disease disproportionately affects young children.
In 1996, at least 1.4 million cases of malaria were reported across the country following heavy rains and high temperatures. Some 6,000 people died, mostly children.
Similarly, the prevalence of water-, air- and vector-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea, cholera and bilharzia (schistosomiasis), is expected to increase in areas where higher levels of rainfall are projected.
Washington Zhakata, national climate change coordinator in the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, said children in rural areas are also disadvantaged by depletion of water resources, multiplying the distance they must travel to water points.
Many children are tasked with fetching water for livestock before heading to class. “By the time they (kids) go to school they will be tired, and others eventually drop out,” Zhakata said by telephone.
Children’s previously unheard voices have been incorporated into the new climate strategy through their participation in two national-level consultative workshops, he added. They also took part in 22 provincial meetings held by the climate ministry between September and November 2013.
Terrence Mushore, a lecturer at the Bindura University of Science Education, said studies show that average temperatures in Zimbabwe have climbed 0.7 degrees Celsius since the 1960s.
Rainfall has declined 5 percent in the northern half of the country and 15 percent in the south, particularly in Matebeleleland and Masvingo provinces. Here droughts have become more frequent, affecting the agriculture-dependent economy.
Climate models predict that rainfall will decrease across Zimbabwe in the future, Mushore said. By the 2080s, annual rainfall is projected to be between 5 and 18 percent lower than the 1961-1990 average, he added.
Low-lying areas like Muzarabani have become dangerous hotspots for climate and weather extremes, according to Linear Mushawi, head of climate at the local meteorological services department.
The region is still smarting from the damage to public infrastructure caused by Cyclone Eline in 2000 and Cyclone Japhet in 2003, Mushawi added.
Jeffrey Gogo is a climate change and environmental journalist/columnist with The Herald, Zimbabwe’s biggest daily.