Saturday, March 01, 2014

We need to change to survive climate change

Changes in climate such as higher temperatures and reduced water supplies, along with other factors like biodiversity loss and ecosystems degradation, affect agriculture. According to Science, a leading international research journal, by 2030 Southern Africa and South Asia will be the two regions in the world whose crop production is most affected by climate change. Climate change comes with never-before-experienced impacts. For example, crop yields and growing seasons will decrease even as changing rain patterns will worsen people’s access to water. Yet Africa’s population is projected to reach 2 billion in less than 37 years, and in 86 years three out of every four people added to the planet will be African. That is why experts have warned that if the current situation persists, Africa will be fulfilling only 13% of its food needs by 2050. This situation will further threaten about 65% of African workers who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods including children and the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Hunger already affects about 240 million Africans daily. The situation will be dire for children who need proper nourishment to succeed in their education. The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has estimated that African countries could lose between 2% and 16% of gross domestic product due to stunting of children as a result of malnutrition.

Food insecurity will likely lead to social unrest, as has been the case in the past. For example, between 2007 and 2008, riots took place in many countries when prices of staples peaked. In 2010, hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Mozambique after wheat prices went up by 25% due to a global wheat shortage. The increase in bread prices led to arson, violence, looting and even deaths.

 The Africa Adaptation Gap Report by the UN Environment Programme, the UN organ responsible for promoting sustainable use of the environment, confirmed the World Bank’s recent findings that with warming of about 2 degrees C, all crop yields across sub-Saharan Africa will decrease by 10% by the 2050s; greater warming (which is more likely) will cause crop yields to decrease by up to 15% or 20%. Further bad news for African agriculture is that by the middle of this century, wheat production could decrease by 17%, maize production by 5%, sorghum production by 15% and millet production by 10%. Additionally, if climate warming exceeds 3 degrees C, all present-day cropping areas for maize, millet and sorghum will be unsuitable for those crops. In the coming years, water for agriculture will be stretched to a painful extent. In Africa, 95% of agriculture relies on rainfall for water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The World Bank notes it is very likely that by 2020 the total availability of blue and green water (from rains and rivers) in all of Africa could decline by more than 10%.

 Africa needs an approach that works with nature, not against it. The most pessimistic forecast about the impact of climate change suggests that Africa may lose 47% of agricultural revenue by 2100, while the most optimistic predicts a loss of only 6%. The latter scenario depends on the assumption that climate change adaptation practices and infrastructure are already in place. But the difference between 6% and 47% is huge.

There is a continuing argument as to whether the industrial agricultural revolution will solve some or all of Africa’s climate change problems. However, experts maintain that industrial agriculture currently accounts for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions—the very element most responsible for climate change. Additionally, they believe that the resources and infrastructure required to operate an industrial agricultural system in Africa are impractical for smallholder farmers. New machines also mean fewer hands, which may increase joblessness while reducing wages, affecting many who depend on agriculture. Because current practices cannot meet future demands, Africa must apply new and better approaches.

One of the options being advocated is the ecosystem-based adaptation,, which is to mitigate climate change impact through the use natural systems such as drought-resistant varieties, more efficient methods of water storage and more diversity in crop rotation, says UNEP. In Zambia, 61% of farmers who applied an ecosystem-based adaptation, such as natural resource conservation or sustainable organic agricultural practices, reported surplus yields. Some yields even increased by up to 60%, while sales of surplus crops grew from 25.9% to 69%. In Burkina Faso, farmers are using indigenous methods to rehabilitate land. By digging small pits (locally referred to as zaï) on barren plots and filling them with organic matter, some Burkinabe farmers are able to add nutrients to the soil while enhancing groundwater storage to improve crop productivity. These farmers have reclaimed 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of degraded lands and have produced an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 additional tonnes of cereal.

Other options include protecting watersheds and reinforcing their capacity to hold water and carry it to those who need it most; using integrated pest management, which is a natural and cost-effective way of protecting crops; using agroforestry, intercropping and crop rotation, which bring nutrient diversity to fields and ensure continued and improved production yields in a natural way; maintaining forests and using forest foods; using natural fertilizers like manure; and using natural pollinators like bees, which, according to a recent study, could increase fruit yields by 5%.

 Building on such good practices, and properly managing the unavoidable effects of climate change, will unlock Africa’s potential to feed itself. The future need not be a future of want.

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