Caprivi Bushfire Ruins Crop Fields

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By Chrispin Inambao WINDHOEK A large inferno fired up by an abundance of dry vegetation and unharvested crops, raging for six days in the three constituencies of Katima Rural, Sibbinda and Linyanti in the Caprivi Region, has burnt hundreds of thousands of hectares of grazing and crop fields. Sibbinda Constituency, that in March grappled with unprecedented flooding, and some parts of Katima Rural are the worst affected by the fire that is spreading westwards. By yesterday morning, the fire had swept through 500 000 hectares of land, ruining large quantities of both harvested and unharvested crops while large tracts of prime grazing areas were simply reduced to ashes and thick clouds of smoke rose into the air. The latest calamity to afflict the region that is still recovering from successive droughts and flooding that both worsened the region’s food security were yesterday confirmed by both the Caprivi Regional Governor Bernard Sibalatani and Dennis Sikabongo, the District Forestry Officer, who both visited the areas affected by the ruinous inferno. Both officials dismissed an NBC radio report that claimed that several people lost their lives as a result of the fire that started a week ago at Muyako, one of the areas that had anticipated a bumper harvest from the above-average rain that fell in different parts of the country. Sikabongo, who spoke to New Era while en-route to the fire-ravaged areas to supervise the joint teams dispatched to the area to extinguish the blaze, said: “It is a big fire that started last Thursday in the Muyako area.” He said villagers equipped with tree branches and small containers of water initially tried to extinguish the fire and only alerted his office after their efforts proved fruitless. It eventually spread westwards towards Lusu and northwards towards Kwena. At the time of the interview, the District Forestry Officer was on his way to Chinchimani where the fire had spread. Sikabongo expressed fear that the fire that burnt all the way to Muketela was spreading towards Linyanti – the next village. Officials from the Regional Emergency Management Unit (REMU), a regional Governmental agency tasked with disaster management yesterday hastily convened a meeting with the Governor at which both the Namibian Defence Force (NDF) and members of the police were roped in to assist with transport and personnel. At the meeting, the NDF pledged to assist with a truck for the possible evacuation of villagers, as well as a water tanker that would be used to put out the bush fire. The Government Garage promised to avail two trucks although Sikabongo noted that it was also among the Government departments severely affected by a lack of transport. “Transport is a very serious problem in this region, even the government garage does not have trucks for emergencies and we cannot rely on them because at the same time they have to distribute drought food,” he said. Those involved in the efforts to put out the fire have been unable to do so because they were only equipped with two tanks with capacities of 5 000-litres and 6 000-litres that can only be mounted on a trailer pulled by either a tractor or a truck, while villagers also tried in vain to use freshly-chopped tree branches. Other fire-fighting equipment in the hands of forestry officials at Katima Mulilo, are four mobile water tanks that each can be filled with a maximum of 3 000 litres of the liquid. He says the tractor is too slow and inadequate for such a challenging task, while the only truck, a 6×6 Mercedes Benz truck suitable for such emergencies was sent to Windhoek in 2002 for repairs but has yet to be fixed because of financial constraints. Recently, Sikabongo was on NBC radio counselling villagers about the possible dangers of inadvertently causing a fire from the communal activities of cooking and smoking in the open areas of Lusu, Kanono, and Muyako because he was of the expert opinion that these are “high-risk areas because of Blackleria Negropeda, the type of grass common in that area that can burn at a speed of one kilometre in 10 minutes.” Traditional authorities in the areas now bereft of any vegetation were advised to assist the settlements affected by the spreading fire and not only act when it was in their vicinity. “I said the people should join hands and that when the fire was at Muyako the people from Lusu should go and fight the fire at Muyako and those from Muyako should also go to Lusu when the fire is reported in that area,” said the forestry technician. Sikabongo said funds permitting, he would have proposed prescribed burning “in that area to minimise the fuel-load, the bio-mass”. He said there was also an urgent need to demarcate the area between Lusu and Muyako and that many accessible routes that are now covered with vegetation should be opened up by way of grading. It appears Caprivi is becoming more and more prone to a number of calamities as could be attested to by the frequency of the flooding on the one hand, and the drought that on the other hand causes massive crop failure and the need for food distributions. The only natural burns in Caprivi occur from October to December when lightning may cause fires and these are normally closely followed by rain. But people also set fires for reasons such as to clear land for cultivation and to stimulate the growth of fresh grass for cattle, as well as to flush out game that is normally hunted for the pot by villagers. But it should also be noted that many of the fires are started accidentally as well. The few rivers, wide channels and roads are the only barriers to these fires, while it is also true that the network of firebreaks previously cut to control and manage fires is no longer maintained. Damage caused by these infernos occurs in a number of ways, but it is the frequency of burning that probably leads to the most damage. Young trees are killed by repeated fires. It is now almost impossible to find young teak and other valuable plants.