Tourists post pictures on social media of iconic falls known as “The Smoke That Thunders” looking decidedly tame as farmers endure record drought that will cause hunger across the continent
Southern Africa is in the grip of an historic drought which has slashed crop production, killed cattle, shut off water supplies to rural communities and even diminished the mighty Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border to a shadow of its former self.
Tourists visiting the falls have posted pictures showing the famous Smoke That Thunders reduced in some parts to little more than a trickle, as markers show it is two metres below its habitual levels.
The low water mark has resulted in locals rechristening the Unesco’s world heritage site “Victoria Walls”. Earlier this month tourists could be seen crossing the cliff edge where the falls would normally be in full flow in January, while others swam in the Devil’s Pool right on the edge of the precipice, something that would normally be impossible.
Nicole Subramunian, a worker at a safari lodge on the Zambezi River which feeds the falls, said the low water levels were perilous for everyone.
“Low levels make boating a nightmare. Boats can get stuck on sandbanks and many hippos and crocs appear in these drier areas, which is dangerous,” she told The Telegraph.
Although the flow of water from the Zambezi River is always low during the dry season, conservation experts say the rains now flowing in from floodplains are six weeks too late.
Official data from the Zambezi River Authority shows that flows were 20 per cent lower on January 18 than the previous year, and that Lake Kariba, the world’s largest manmade reservoir that sits upstream of Victoria Falls, is only 12 per cent full at present.
The dam that sits across the lake supplies both Zambia and Zimbabwe with up to half of its power and yet ZRA said water levels were within two metres of its massive hydropower plants having to be shut down.
Both countries are already feeling the effects. Zambia relies on hydroelectricity for 99.7 per cent of its power in total.
Its president, Edgar Lungu, in October organised national prayer sessions for a strengthening of the economy and rain to fall but the prayers were not answered and in the same month, ZESCO, Zambia’s power supplier, implemented a programme of rolling blackouts for several hours each day.
Those have sent the cost of living for consumers skyrocketing and crippled the already struggling copper industry, which is central to Zambia’s economy.
Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, a similar power crisis means that urban residents go without electricity for more than 18 hours a day, with a knock-on effect for industry and business. At least 7,000 cattle are reported to have already died and northern herders are reportedly driving their animals into the country’s national parks, meaning they will compete with wildlife for scarce food resources.
Earlier this month it was revealed that Robert Mugabe’s cash-strapped government has struck a secret deal to buy expensive power from Eskom, the state power firm of its southern neighbour South Africa. The move prompted outrage from South Africans who have also been blighted by a lack of capacity this year, leading to frequent “load shedding” power cuts.
South Africa’s drought is said to be the worst for at least 27 years. Five provinces are close to being declared disaster zones because of a lack of water and citizens’ groups have been organising whip-rounds for watertrucks to conduct deliveries to rural areas. The country will also be forced to import an unprecedented five to six million tonnes of corn, its staple, from overseas.
Farmers have been forced to cull emaciated cattle and at least one is said to have committed suicide because of the tough conditions.
The World Food Programme has warned that 14m people across southern Africa face hunger because of poor harvests last year, which it has warned will be even worse this year.
Further north, Save the Children has categorised the situation in Ethiopiaas the second worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world, behind only Syria, with some 400,000 children suffering severe acute malnutrition as a result of failed rains.
The drought has been attributed to El Niño, the climate phenomenonwhich sees Pacific Ocean warming that has a ripple affect on weather patterns across the world, and which this year was said by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) monitors to be the strongest on record.
This week, a new US study warned that the record-breaking string of hot years since the year 2000 was almost certainly a sign of man-made global warming.
In December, almost 190 nations agreed at the COP21 summit in Paris to shift from fossil fuels towards cleaner energies such as wind and solar power to limit warming.