Villagers search for missing relatives among rocks in flowing water in the wake of Cyclone Idai in Kopa, Chimanimani

Devolution has the potential to help Zimbabwe fight climate change

By David Chikwanza

Climate change is a global issue and there are calls for a global concerted and orchestrated process to deal with the problem. Yet it is apparent that global-level commitment is ill-suited to create the mass social movement needed to generate the complex, multisectoral and context-relevant solutions needed for appropriate action.

Whereas the national level is a starting point, a mass social movement can only be realised at a subnational level, starting with the individual. That is why the devolution enshrined in chapter 14 of the 2013 Zimbabwean constitution is an opportunity not to be missed towards bringing greenhouse gas emissions down and honouring the invitation to change behaviour, consumption and production patterns as they are no longer sustainable. 

The Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry has developed a National Climate Change Response Strategy and the Zimbabwe Climate Change Policy which provide a framework that underpins the nation’s response to climate change. But are they being implemented and what can be done better or differently? 

The truth is that a centralised state is not sufficiently agile or creative to respond effectively to climate change and a one-size-fits-all approach is reductive and generic. That is why strengthening the decentralisation of power, authority, resources, responsibilities and accountabilities to lower tiers of government can be a game-changer. We must allow local leaders and policymakers, such as traditional leaders and village heads, to consider climate policy development and challenges through the lens of a particular place. This will go a long way in ensuring that for every community there is a context-specific approach to addressing climate change. 

For instance, if we learnt anything from the devastating Tropical Cyclone Idai, strengthening disaster risk reduction management systems and enhancing early warning systems should be a priority in provinces such as ManicalandMidlands and Mashonaland East. While improving water-management systems, growing drought-resistant crops and acquiring irrigation technologies should be priorities in a province such as Matabeleland, it may be a secondary issue in provinces such as Manicaland because communities do not have the same susceptibility to climate change.  

Moreover, strengthening devolution enables local leaders through participatory budgeting to determine expenditure priorities and mobilise resources at the local level. On top of the 5% that is supposed to be catered by the central government according to section 301(3) of the national constitution, governments will be able to mobilise various resources as they require the financial, technological and technical means to enhance community adaptive capacity.

However, it has been alleged that local, but mainly national, politicians interfere with local planning and budgeting processes, creating an impression that councils are an extension of the Ministry of Local Government. Limits are imposed on revenue and expenditure levels without adequate evidence, let alone appreciation of local realities. 

Despite having devolution in the constitution, the Local Government Board remains responsible for hiring and firing local government senior management countrywide. Spatial planning and land distribution functions are currently exercised by the national government instead of rural local authorities. In the interest of sustainable development, the central government should not allow this. It must allow local leaders to mobilise the capacity, human resource, knowledge, tools, political and financial support and scientific expertise needed to create resilience without hindrances.

Further, local authorities are best suited to sensitise and rally people to ensure their lifestyles, agricultural practices, educations systems, land-management systems, energy policies and infrastructure designs fit well with community adaptation and resilience-building needs. Closer and effective engagement between policymakers and stakeholders will result in stronger and effective systematic policies and approaches with locals’ buy-in. Local authorities will be able to set context-relevant climate targets and flesh out climate strategies, enabling them to develop distinct, ambitious and even pioneering approaches to tackling climate change.

If strengthened, devolution promises greater responsiveness in times of crisis such as droughts and cyclones. This will prevent locals experiencing a disaster from feeling abandoned, as was the case with the residents of Chimanimani during the initial stage of Cyclone Idai.

Local authorities can also take advantage of devolution by sharing experiences and success stories at the local level. The truth is that implementing devolution from a position of political will offers communities an opportunity to own their climate change adaptation and mitigation agenda instead of waiting for an overwhelmed central government. Grassroots movements too will have greater proximity to local government which they can petition, rebuke and demand accountability without having to catch a bus to Harare. 

For instance, despite strides to bring an end to coal-powered projects, there are still communities where projects of this nature are being implemented with funds from delinquent countries such as China. Once the citizens have become empowered with knowledge, such actions will be prevented through local lobbying and activism. That is why development organisations, government agencies, universities, civil society and the private sector must take systematising communities seriously.

Climate change has moved from being a concern to a crisis situation with serious humanitarian implications, including for health and security. 

In Africa in Perspective: Conversations with DavidAnna Brazier posited that although in many African countries, including Zimbabwe, people have often worried about socioeconomic issues above environmental issues, it is time they realise that issues such as income, food, health, energy supply, security and education depend on their environment. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports show that southern Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change. 

Seventy percent of the population of Zimbabwe are smallholder farmers, whose primary livelihood is agriculture, and women represent the largest group involved in farming activities (~86%). The national economy and the large rural population depend heavily on natural resources (particularly soil, water and forests) for food production, income generation and energy production (fuelwood). Divergent to what many people in Africa think of climate change, it is a major threat to human life, hence the need to seriously look into viable, effective and efficient strategies aimed at rising to the occasion.  

Sustainable management of natural resources at national and community level is fundamental to reducing Zimbabwe’s vulnerability to climate change shocks and hazards. Like many African countries, Zimbabwe has not been spared environmental degradation, water shortages, poverty, hunger and inequality. According to the Global Risk Index 2021, it is listed as one of the countries that suffers most from extreme weather events. 

Looking at the presentation of future scenarios and projections provided by both global and local scientists and researchers, we must act fast through adaptation, resilience-building and mitigation policies. We need to protect our communities from extreme weather events such as drought, floods and cyclones, reckoning our vulnerability chiefly due to our location, shifting rainfall patterns and substantial reliance on natural resources. 

The government must take all necessary measures to deliver devolution as envisaged in our national constitution in chapter 14, because our chances to scale up climate change adaptation and resilience building rest upon it. The ministry responsible for local government must not meddle in local authorities’ affairs, especially when it’s politically motivated. It must strengthen devolution by supporting local authorities’ programmes aimed at achieving sustainable development, primarily by pushing against poverty and unemployment. Local government authorities, instead of prioritising the purchase of the latest vehicles, must put sustainable development programmes at the top of their agenda. Climate change must be mainstreamed in all sector planning, administration and governance at local level. 

Local communities are currently incapacitated and it will require support from government agencies, private partners, NGOs and development organisations, to name a few. We need to invest in more workshops, seminars and training for our local authorities so they lead from the front in making their communities resilient to climate change. 

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