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The Climate African Farmers Counted On Is Gone

By Esther Ngumbi

In West Africa, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita presides over a state under siege by terrorists. But he also faces a threat to his people that makes fewer international headlines: climate change. 

It’s a parallel he drew when he addressed global heads of state gathered at the recently-concluded Paris Climate Conference. Keita spoke of the deaths of lakes and rivers due to inadequate rainfall. Referring to Africa’s third-largest river and the main source of water for people, livestock, and crops in Mali, Keita asked, “Will we be able to irrigate our crops from the Niger River?” 

It’s a chilling question. Without water there is no food, and African agriculture relies almost entirely on rain. The Paris talks reached a global deal on cutting carbon emissions, which is a major milestone. But millions of small-scale farmers across Africa are already struggling to cope with erratic and declining rainfall and, for the most part, they are in the dark about how the big picture is changing. Not realizing that the climate has shifted for good, they fail to significantly adjust their farming practices or to demand the resources, tools, and skills needed to adapt to the altered environment. 

While the global negotiations in Paris were crucial, equally so are the actions taken now by African government leaders in their own countries—especially in regard to small-scale farmers and livestock producers who together represent the mainstay of food production. The livelihoods and daily food consumption of hundreds of millions of people depend on natural resources—from groundwater to the soil—that are directly impacted by climate change. 

In Mali, rainfall has dropped by nearly 30 percent since 1988, leaving more than 1.8 million people in dire need of food aid. In 2014, grain production in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau was down by 20 percent, 28 percent, and 34 percent, respectively, over the previous five-year average.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, low rainfall is contributing to increased hunger. About 1.1 million people are severely food insecure, mainly in the northeastern and coastal counties. On Kenya’s southern coast, over 100,000 farmers have an urgent need for small-scale irrigation technologies and practical means of harvesting rainwater so that when rains do come, the water can be stored for later use.

Without large-scale adaptation to climate change, food shortages will become more common and food prices more volatile, with the potential to greatly exacerbate conflict over scarce resources, hunger, and malnutrition, and to fuel tidal waves of climate refugees.

Africa’s governments must urgently address the needs of small-scale farmers and livestock keepers as they struggle to adapt to climate change. This is not simply a matter of setting up relief funds for the inevitable natural disasters ahead. It is about listening to people, understanding their most pressing needs, and putting in place programs that protect people’s livelihoods and access to water.

Tanzania provides one example of government engagement in preparation for the Paris summit. In a national dialogue facilitated by the United Nations Development Program, government leaders met with leaders of the country’s pastoralist and other indigenous peoples whose livelihoods depend on land.

Pastoral leaders, who have seen their cattle die of thirst and their pasture land degraded, urged the government to allocate funds to secure water supplies for people and livestock, to protect land and water rights, and to ensure that local people are consulted on and freely consent to any development projects that would restrict their use of land and water resources. They also urged the government to include pastoral people in the development of national plans to address climate change. The meeting was a start—it put the issues on the table. Now it is up to the government to follow through with action.

Of course, climate change adaptation is not cheap. It requires improved soil and water management practices, drought-tolerant crops, and dissemination of reliable weather and climate information. We already have models that can be scaled across Africa. For example, the Walker Institute and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change train local “climate communicators” who are able to disseminate climate information to farmers in Tanzania and Malawi.

We need to develop energy-efficient, affordable technologies for irrigation, mechanization, and food processing that improve crop productivity and lessen wear and tear on the environment. 

To help small-scale farmers take advantage of such technologies, governments must lead in the provision of affordable financing. Even a $400 solar water pump is out of reach for many small-scale farmers. But with low interest loans, groups such as the Tumaini Godzo women’s group on the Kenyan coast could invest in irrigation technology and farm year-round, ending poverty in their communities and assuring a good education for their children. 

Adaptation for Africa’s small-scale farmers should be at the top of African governments’ climate change agendas, and farmers themselves must be engaged in setting goals and plans. Furthermore, international partners should support this agenda. Of the annual $11.8 billion in donor government money flowing to the least-developed countries in 2013 and 2014 to deal with climate change, only $1.8 billion was allocated to adaptation; $10 billion went to curbing emissions.

Climate change is making it impossible for Africa’s small-scale food producers to adequately provide for their communities and nations. With the region’s food security in the balance, African governments and their partners must make climate change adaptation a top priority.

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Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2015 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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