Renowned economist Professor Oliver Saasa says failure to adequately prepare for climate change despite previously suffering its effects makes Zambians, not the natural phenomenon, a disaster.
And Professor Saasa has urged government to consider declaring a hunger emergency in the worst hit parts of the country.
In an interview, Professor Saasa noted that in his state of the nation address, President Edgar Lungu was right to address the issue of climate change but that he should have outlined practical steps of mitigating its effects.
“The President, when he talks about this, we want to hear, what sort of projects are we embarking on that will allow us to be able to quarantine water, rather than allowing it to go all the way to the Indian Ocean. That’s what I want to hear, how and to what extent are we subsidizing production especially in terms of agriculture and targeting properly as opposed to FISP which seems to benefit people who are not supposed to benefit from it, that is preparedness. Now that the President has talked, I want to hear sweet music coming from the lieutenants whose responsibility it is to start operationalising that, recognizing that climatic change is the major problem. I cannot subtract from the weight of that, how you react to it is where now we still have a big homework. So for me, I am recognizing that it’s true, that is the point but there are certain things that we can do which we are not doing to make a difference and that is really for me where I want to see more traction from the part of government,” Prof Saasa said.
“So this is a case of resilience. To what extent when you are poor, when you have no reserves are you resilient to a problem like climate change. It’s called, in my view and everyone agrees, it’s called resilience, it’s called preparedness. This is really where it’s important to recognize also that you see, if a drought happens and it comes cyclically, such that every three or four years it comes, and each time it comes we call it a disaster; then we are the disaster. Because you see if something keeps on happening no matter how serious it is, you must be prepared for it next time around.”
He said President Lungu should have also addressed the debt levels in his address.
Of course the President is not expected to say everything, but there are a few things that if one asked me or if I was part of the team that was preparing his speech, I could have thrown in a number of things. One of them is the debt level, you see because now we have utilized most of our reserves in servicing the debt, our foreign reserves right now are about US$1.41 billion which is equivalent to less than 2 months of import cover. It means that when we have a crisis of this nature, if we had to import electricity, the state cannot have no recourse to reserves that can cushion the price, so what happens? Immediately we import, we have as a consumer to pay through our nose because we have to borrow very expensively because we do not have reserves you see,” Saasa said.
And Professor Saasa urged government to consider declaring a hunger emergency restricted to certain areas.
“I would have wanted to remind our colleagues in government; when you declare food a disaster, you are not saying that the whole country is affected. You can in fact look at particular regions and say we are declaring a disaster in this area. Either because they were so badly affected by drought, and that is the case, or because of the poverty levels, they are seriously affected by their inability because they are poor, to access a nutritionally adequate food basket. And then you can go and declare a disaster or an emergency, once you declare it as an emergency there are a number of things that happen. Firstly, NGOs will mobilize themselves; we don’t have to beg from outside the country, they can be mobilized to get to where food is and take it to where it’s required, from the sylos in Lusaka or on the Copperbelt to where it is needed. When it’s declared an emergency, the military can be mobilized,” he said.
“The military usually are not expected under normal situations to actually step in but they can because now you are in a state of emergency. So we have to use all means than the conventional, than the normal that’s allowable to look at a situation that is not necessarily national but is an isolated case. So it’s about targeting to what extent we go. So I thought I should illustrate that because it speaks to the issue of climate change.”
Prof Saasa argued that having sufficient food stocks at national level did not immediately translate into access to food by those who needed it.
“Government says we have enough food reserves, which is fine and of course one has to understand that food availability at the national level is not the same as food access. You can starve under plenty because food access speaks not to availability of food at the national level; it speaks to availability of food where it’s needed at the right time, at the right price,” said Prof Saasa.