Climate Change Threatens Food Security in Southern Africa

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Erratic rainfall has already caused food shortages in southern Africa. Yields will fall in nine percent between now and 2045.

By Miriam Mannak
Inter Press News Service, January 19, 2009

Climate change will have a significant impact on southern Africa’s already compromised food security, environmental experts warned at the fifth Alexander von Humboldt International Conference at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa.

The meeting, held Jan. 11-16, drew climate change experts and environmental scientists from around the world.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, one in three people living in Sub-Saharan Africa were chronically hungry in 2007. The region is also hardest hit by extreme poverty, harbouring 75 percent of people worldwide that live on less then a dollar a day.

Since 2007, erratic rainfall has led to increased food shortages in southern Africa where droughts damaged and destroyed maize crops in Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

As a result, southern Africa faced a shortfall of 2.18 million metric tonnes of maize in 2006 and, according to researchers of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), people in southern Africa lacked more than 4 million metric tonnes of maize in 2007/2008.

Increasing food shortages have become a trend, cautioned Sepo Hachigonta of the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG), a climatology research group based at UCT.

“We estimate that the maize yields in, for instance, Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Limpopo province will decrease by approximately nine percent between now and 2045,” he told IPS. “This predicted decline will pose a major problem, as maize is the region’s main staple food.”

The CSAG recently investigated the long-term effects of climate change on rain-fed agriculture in southern Africa where the majority of farmers depend on rainfall as a main water source for their crops as they cannot afford irrigation systems.

“When rainfall is low, late or early, these people and their dependents are the first ones to be in trouble,” Hachigonta said.

According to the CSAG, there is a direct link between the projected decrease of maize yields and climatological changes.

“Firstly, the region is expected to get hotter,” Hachigonta reckoned. “As a result of increasing temperatures, more water will evaporate from the soil at a higher pace. This places stress on crops. Secondly, we predict changes in rain patterns.”

Hachigonta explained further: “We do not predict an increase or decrease of annual rain fall as such, but our data shows that the there could be changes in when the rain season starts and ends.”

Declining yields

Based on scientific research including interviews with farmers in the region, the CSAG predicts that within the next three decades, the rain season in Zimbabwe and Limpopo province will start more than a month later, in December instead of in late October.

A potential solution to declining maize yields could be for farmers to grow different crops that are more resilient to weather changes and need less water.

“Maize requires large amounts of water, so theoretically, farmers in southern Africa should rather plant crops like sorghum or millet,” Hachigonta said. “They need less water.”

Sorghum and millet are staple foods in many western African countries, such as Mali, where farmers have to find ways to grow crops despite severe water shortages.

“The problem is tradition and habit. People living in southern Africa have been eating maize for centuries. They will not easily switch to sorghum,” Hachigonta continued.

Rain patterns have also started to change in western African countries, experts predict.

“The wet season in Cameroon used to start in March, but over the past years, the rain has only come in April,” said Medard Djatou, anthropoligist at the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon, who has researched the impact of climate change on the lives of the Bamileke, Cameroon’s largest ethnic group who strongly depends on small-scale and rain-fed agriculture.

“We asked older farmers how they perceive today’s climate and rainfall patterns and what the situation was like when they started farming in their late teens and early twenties,” Djatou explained. “The vast majority of the people we interviewed complained about higher temperatures, rain retardation and failing crops.”

Farming practices

The problem, according to Djatou, is that most people in developing countries do not realise that some of their actions are part of the problem of climate change.

For example, the burning of grassland is used by farmers in many parts of Africa to remove crop stubble and return nutrients to the soil. However, the burnings release large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

He said governments throughout the continent should make a bigger effort to educate their populations about climate change and environmentally friendly farming practices. “Policy makers should involve local communities in the debate around climate change,” Djatou recommended.

Urias Goll, researcher at the Liberia Reconstruction and Development Committee, which oversees the implementation of poverty reduction and reconstruction strategies in the country, shares Djatou’s opinion.

“It is crucial that data dealing with the implications of climate change on farming is made available to those who will be first affected,” he said, adding that “many farmers still explain low yields, droughts or floods as a sanction of the gods. Communities need to know what is going on, why the rains are late, why crops are failing and what they can do about it.”

According to Goll, education of farmers should take place as a joint initiative by scientists, NGOs and governments.

He further stressed the fact that data also needed to be localised, he stressed, so that farmers receive information relevant to their living situation because “the impact of climate change differs from region to region.”