• The dry season

    With the impact of climate change being exacerbated by El Niño, drought conditions are plaguing the continent. Now more than ever, drastic measures are required to counter its effects.

    The dry season

    One of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded – combined with climate change – has left 60 million people worldwide vulnerable to hunger. Nearly half of them live in Southern Africa, one of the regions worst affected by unusually dry and warm conditions.

    Farmer organisations in Southern Africa reported that across large parts of the region, the 2015/16 rainfall season was the driest in the last 35 years. In a recent report, South African farmer organisation Agri SA says the ‘region would experience significant reductions in crop production in 2016, a situation that was expected to worsen food security during the 2016/17 season’.

    In March 2016, SADC approved a declaration of the regional drought disasters, acknowledging the severe levels of hunger and food insecurity the region could suffer as a result of drought-related crop losses. The SADC secretariat said that if urgent action was not taken to address the situation, the number of people affected in Southern Africa could rise to 49 million – up from the current estimate of 28 million to 30 million people.

    In the Agri SA report, executive director Omri van Zyl explains that as a result of the weather phenomenon, ‘rains, which typically begin in October/November, have been [up to] 50 days late and significantly below average’.

    This, coupled with above-average temperatures, has led to limited crop development, pasture regrowth and water availability. ‘If rainfall remains below average, as forecasts suggest, the current growing season is likely to be one of the driest on record,’ he says.

    ‘If the abnormally hot and dry conditions persist, a regional food security crisis – including a substantial increase in the size of the acutely food insecure population – is likely to emerge in the latter half of 2016 and early 2017.’

    Van Zyl notes that at the beginning of the 2015/16 summer season, food insecurity was already higher than usual due to poor crop production and flooding in 2015.

    Harvests in April and May, although smaller than usual, were expected to ‘improve food access across the region in the short term, but food security is likely to begin deteriorating by July’, peaking between December 2016 and March 2017.

    ‘In addition to reduced staple and cash-crop production at the household level, the major driver of food insecurity over the coming year is likely to be further increases in staple food prices,’ he says.

    As reported by Oxfam International, the region’s largest maize producer, South Africa, which produced 61% of food supply in Southern Africa, predicts a 36% decrease from its five-year average maize harvest.

    According to the aid agency, more than 2.44 million people in Zimbabwe will require at least US$717 million worth of food aid in 2016. Oxfam says Zambia’s 2015 maize crop was down 21% compared to 2014, and the 2016 harvest was expected to again be lower.

    Nearly 1 million people in areas of southern and western Zambia were highly vulnerable. In Malawi, more than 2.8 million people did not have access to enough food to stave off hunger, and the country was experiencing its worst food insecurity in more than a decade.

    Malawi’s maize harvest last year was 2.8 million tons, down from 4 million tons the year before.

    The international aid organisation says that 176 000 people in Mozambique were in a state of acute food insecurity due to drought. And thanks to the impact of the El Niño phenomenon on rainfall patterns in the country’s southern and central regions, a further 575 000 people across the country were at risk of going hungry.

    Addressing industry stakeholders and members of the media in Pretoria on the drought situation in Southern Africa, Ishmael Sunga, CEO of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (Sacau), said that farmers in the region were ‘at the front line of this catastrophe, and are arguably the worst affected’.

    However, according to Sunga, farmers have not spoken directly on the matter. Instead their plight has been highlighted in studies by development and other agencies.

    Farmers in the region needed to come together to craft short- and long-term solutions to the drought, he said, adding that the unfolding humanitarian crisis caused by the drought would not only be blamed on El Niño. The area could have been much better prepared for this crisis if more had been done in the past to develop a successful and resilient farming sector in all Southern African countries, he said.

    ‘A main focus is restoring ecosystems and their services as a means of bolstering the resilience of agricultural livelihoods’

     Sunga argued that the impact of the drought was made worse by inadequate investment in the necessary infrastructure in the past, which has left countries in Southern Africa ill-equipped to cope with a natural disaster of this scale.

    He called for regional collaboration between governments and farmer organisations to use the current crisis as the catalyst to motivate significant investment in farming infrastructure in the region.

    Sunga emphasised the importance of not only reacting in a way that would solve immediate problems, but said the response to this drought should strengthen agriculture in the region in the long term.

    The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced several interventions across Southern Africa to reduce the adverse effects of El Niño that would also meet the long-term need to increase the region’s resilience to drought and other impacts of climate change, including increased climate variability.

    According to FAO sub-regional co-ordinator for Southern Africa David Phiri, the organisation is currently working on a ‘twin-track approach with governments and other partners across the sub-region to address both the immediate and longer-term needs. Appropriate crop and livestock interventions intended to minimise the effects are already being up-scaled’.

    The FAO says the focus of immediate interventions included supporting farmers by providing drought-tolerant crops, seeds and livestock feed and carrying out vaccinations. To support longer-term resilience-building approaches, the organisation was focusing on the rehabilitation of irrigation systems, improving farmers’ access to rural finance, and supporting wider use of climate-smart agricultural technologies.

    Stress tolerance – drought-related in particular, is widely recognised as one of the most important targets of crop-improvement programmes to support farmers in Africa in their climate adaptation efforts.

    The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and its partners recently launched a new project – Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) – to combat the devastating environmental effects that occur in many regions across sub-Saharan Africa.

    Their goal is to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through African seed firms

    The project will develop new varieties and hybrids of maize, with resistance and tolerance to drought, low soil fertility, heat, diseases and pests that affect maize in sub-Saharan Africa, CIMMYT said in a statement.

    More than 35 million ha of cultivated maize in sub-Saharan Africa is rain fed. Drought and low fertility soils are prevalent in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa and most smallholder farmers cannot afford the recommended amount of nitrogen fertilisers.

    According to CIMMYT, the new stress-tolerant varieties and hybrids will increase maize productivity by 30% to 50% for smallholders.

    ‘STMA will use modern breeding technologies that will confer the desired resistance to pests, diseases and tolerance to climatic stresses like drought and heat to benefit farmers within their socio-economic capabilities, that often dictate their access to important farm inputs like fertilisers and improved seed,’ says Tsedeke Abate, STMA project leader. The STMA is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAid.

    CIMMYT is also a partner in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. This public-private partnership between national agricultural research institutions in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa; the African Agricultural Technology Foundation; CIMMYT; and multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto is working on developing drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize using conventional and marker-assisted breeding, as well as biotechnology.

    Their goal is to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through African seed firms.

    A number of initiatives have been launched by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to help address climate change in East and Southern Africa.

    In its latest progress report on some of these initiatives, IFAD indicated that projects in Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands were successful in introducing simple water and land management techniques that prevent damage to soils from flooding and help conserve water.

    ‘A main focus is restoring ecosystems and their services as a means of bolstering the resilience of agricultural livelihoods,’ says IFAD.

    An IFAD-financed pilot project in Kenya’s Lower Tana basin was using community-based approaches to ‘strengthen the resilience of poor communities’ farming systems in the face of short-term climate variability, and to reduce vulnerability to current climatic risks’, according to its report.

    ‘The project has introduced a range of adaptive activities such as improved water resource management through water user associations; more appropriate agricultural practices such as agroforestry and river bank protection; energy-efficient cooking stoves and charcoal kilns; and the rehabilitation of degraded land, especially hilltops.’

    IFAD was also pioneering and testing payment for environmental services, income diversification and more sustainable and profitable management systems, which could become a major factor in encouraging rural communities in these regions to protect the resources they depended on and to help them become active players in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

    By Alida van Heerden
    Image: Gallo/GettyImages