Zambia’s vast maize fields, once a symbol of national food security, are presenting a worrying picture. Parched earth and withering crops paint a bleak reality for millions of smallholder farmers facing the devastating effects of a prolonged drought. Experts warn that the situation could worsen with the looming El Niño weather phenomenon, pushing the country towards a potential hunger crisis.

President Hakainde Hichilema recently declared a national disaster as over 80% of Zambia’s districts grapple with the crippling dry spell. “We haven’t seen rain for weeks at a time, precisely when our farmers need it most,” said President Hichilema. “This is a serious threat to our food security and the livelihoods of millions.”

The situation is particularly dire for smallholder farmers, who constitute the backbone of Zambia’s agricultural sector. Ms. Bwalya Mumba, a farmer in the southern province of Sinazongwe, shared her despair. “Our maize crops are dying. We don’t have the resources to invest in irrigation, and without rain, there will be nothing left to harvest.”

Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, estimates that over six million Zambians are at risk of hunger and malnutrition due to the drought. “This crisis is compounded by the lingering effects of COVID-19 and last year’s floods,” said Ezra Banda, Director at Keepers Zambia Foundation, a partner of Oxfam. “Many families are already struggling, and this drought could push them over the edge.”

Climate change and the El Niño phenomenon are major culprits in this unfolding crisis. “El Niño is expected to bring erratic weather patterns, potentially leading to even more extreme droughts and floods,” warned Dr. Agness Mudenda, a Zambian climate scientist. “Urgent action is needed to build the resilience of our agricultural systems and support our farmers in adapting to these changing conditions.”

The Zambian government has pledged to distribute drought-resistant seeds and provide emergency food assistance. However, experts warn that long-term solutions are crucial. “Investing in climate-smart agriculture, irrigation infrastructure, and early warning systems is essential,” said Dr. Michael Phiri, an agricultural economist. “We need to empower our farmers to cope with these challenges and ensure food security for future generations.”

As Zambia battles the scorching sun and the threat of El Niño, the clock is ticking for its farmers and millions who depend on their harvest. The lush green fields that were once a symbol of national pride now stand as a stark reminder of the vulnerability of food systems in a changing climate.