Warming may change African farmer
Vail, CO Colorado
PEMBA, Zambia ” Corn farmers in southern Zambia used to be able to predict the year’s first rainfall, almost to the day. Now, October often stretches into November, and November into December, before the rain comes.
The rainy season in this largely poor southern African nation, a study shows, has been getting shorter, more intense and more erratic, especially over the last 20 years ” symptoms of longer-term climatic changes occurring across Africa.
When the Live Earth global concerts kick off Saturday for a weekend of raising climate-change awareness, part of the focus will be on Africa, which is likely to be hit particularly hard by climate change, even though it is the lowest emitter of greenhouse gases. One of the eight concerts is in the South African metropolis of Johannesburg.
Between fluctuating rainfall and slowly rising temperatures, Zambian farmers are very vulnerable to climate changes, says a study completed last year by the Center for Environmental and Economic Policy of Africa at South Africa’s University of Pretoria.
Timothy Hampuwo, a 66-year-old farmer and local government councilor, agrees.
“It’s unpredictable. It’s a pure gamble,” he said at an agriculture show in Pemba, a farming town about 100 miles south of the capital, Lusaka.
The rains used to fall from October to March. They still end in March, but last year no serious rains fell until Christmas.
Some farmers have moved to wetter parts of Zambia, while Hampuwo is staying put and learning, as he says, “to go with the weather.”
He uses a maize seed engineered to mature early and survive drought years. “It resists heat even when you have a short rainfall,” he says. It was developed by the Maize Research Institute, a Lusaka-based company that constantly updates its seed varieties.
In southern Africa, a region already wracked by poverty, AIDS and malaria, climate changes will make things worse unless businesses and governments adapt, scientists warn.
Shorter rainy seasons mean more frequent and harsher droughts, while heavier rainfall means more flooding.
The South African government expects malaria to surge back in regions that previously faced little risk, as rising temperatures lead to increased mosquito breeding.
Africa’s subsistence farmers could be most threatened, because they have little access to information or money to buy modern irrigation equipment.
Some have switched to crops such as sweet potatoes which mature earlier and need less water. But governments have long supported corn-growing and it’s the basis of nshima, the Zambian daily staple. So farmers are reluctant to stop growing it.
“It’s harder to convince these guys to stop growing maize than to convince these G-8 countries to stop climate change,” said Gilbert Vlahakis, a Zambian seed distributor.
While wealthy donor nations, as well as some government officials in Zambia and other African nations, focus on climate change, farming in southern Africa faces other threats. At the Conservation Farming Unit, a part of the Zambia National Farmers’ Union that is teaching farmers conservation-friendly planting techniques, officials say government policies are inefficient and fixated on maize.
Last year’s South African study advises the Zambian government to stop subsidizing crops that do poorly in a changing climate, and to invest in climate data collection and weather forecasting.
The Zambian government is trying to attract foreign investment in hydroelectric dams. Francis Yamba, an engineer who runs the Center for Energy, Environment and Engineering in Lusaka, said another idea is to channel water from the Congo River to the Zambezi. Yamba also says farmers should turn their agricultural waste into energy.
Nations in the region lack cash and expertise for grand engineering schemes. But not all solutions have to rely on advanced technology.
Every summer in Zambia’s Western province, when flood waters move in, the king of the Lozi tribe leads his people from the flood plains to higher ground, near his summer palace.
Environmental experts are wondering whether it could work elsewhere.
“They’re indigenous coping measures,” Yamba says. “They’ve been doing that for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why not use traditional Lozi culture?”