In spite of the political and financial turmoil that Zimbabwe faces, the country seems to be on the right track in adopting strategies to address the effects of climate change. But these strategies tend to have a strong rural bias, overlooking the fact that almost half of the country now lives in urban areas, according to a joint review of the country's climate change response by a think tank and leading NGO.
Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, has begun to develop a national framework to respond to climate change, including efforts to identify authorities to process donor funds for mitigating and adapting to climate change, said one of the authors of the review, Shepard Zvigadza of ZERO Regional Environment Organization.
However, as in most other African countries, policymakers and researchers "ignore longstanding urbanization trends and continue to overstate the proportion of Zimbabwe's population living in rural areas."
The ruling ZANU-PF party, which has dominated politics in Zimbabwe for decades, has been accused of appeasing their voters, who are largely rural, by developing policies that cater to them while disregarding urban residents.
Taking into account UN statistics, the authors suggested that almost 38 percent of Zimbabwe's population lives in urban areas, but the number could be as high as 50 percent if national assessments are considered.
Climate change adds to woes
Zimbabwe's urban transition is a lot more advanced than most countries in Southern Africa, and urban problems such as water scarcity - prompted by sparse rains and a dropping water table - are not getting the attention they deserve, Zvigadza told IRIN in an email.
"Research shows that the water table for boreholes used to be around 30m in the 1990s, but now water can be found around 60m or more below ground. This is true for cities like Bulawayo, whose water sources are various rivers. Such a situation has created long-term water and sanitation challenges, leading to health problems in cities like Chitungwiza and Kadoma," he added.
Following severe water shortages in Chitungwiza and Kadoma in 2012, outbreaks of typhoid and cholera were recorded. In 2008, the country experienced one of the worst cholera outbreaks recorded anywhere in recent times; the outbreak killed at least 4,000 people and infected 100,000 others.
The country's socioeconomic problems, combined with the effects of climate change, are likely to aggravate the situation in the coming years.
Zvigadza explained that, "obviously, there are some other socioeconomic factors like poor waste management and service delivery that are most likely to be at play, but climate change is going to worsen this situation. For example, in [the] water and sanitation situation, nearby flowing sewer water is more likely to contaminate fresh piped water if there is a broken pipe. Water reticulation infrastructure has now aged and cannot cope with the rising population. This means they can break at any time where there is too much water in the system as a result of flooding."
Evidence from climate change impact studies shows that Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is going to experience heavy, frequent and prolonged rainfall leading to flash floods, said Zvigadza.
A broken health infrastructure that cannot cope with the rising urban population is yet another driver of a potential crisis. "The health facilities may fail to cope with this demand, and climate change as an added stressor is most likely to increase this urban population’s vulnerability," he added.
Adapting to climate change
The government should invest in the health, water and energy sectors to develop infrastructure that can adapt to climate variability, said Zvigadza.
Zimbabwe's development policies should be related to adaptation, such as promoting water harvesting techniques at the household level. Education on climate change should be initiated at primary schools to create awareness at an early age and help people prepare.
Zvigadza noted that the country "is obviously struggling financially", but there are "donors who are interested" in supporting the country, which "has advanced in its readiness to receive and use climate funds."
A number of NGOs and research organizations have begun to emphasize adaptation to climate change in their development projects, particularly in drought-prone rural areas, noted the review. A community-based adaptation project was piloted by the UN Development Programme in Zimbabwe, for example. A growing number of NGOs has also becoming involved in Zimbabwe's Climate Change Working Group, a leading civil society network.
While civil society has increasingly come under attack in the country for political reasons, Zvigadza said, "it has become obvious that climate change has not been politicized, thus civil society has been working and continues to work with communities without intimidation... Overall, what is only required is the sense of national belonging that is speaking with one non-partisan voice, and this has begun to happen.”