Erratic rains threaten food output

2011-11-24 17:45

Johannesburg - Rainfall patterns in southern Africa are becoming erratic as climate change takes its toll, threatening long-term production of staple and cash crops in the region.

Countries like South Africa, Zambia and Malawi have enjoyed bumper harvests of their staple maize crop in recent years, ensuring food security in a region which has often known hunger.

But farmers, who for centuries have known when to expect summer rains, are now finding planning difficult.

"The rain patterns are just mixed up. You plant with the early rains then all of a sudden there is drought or floods. Sometimes the rains come earlier than expected," said Felix Jumbe, president of the Farmers Union of Malawi.

"Farmers are failing to plan when to plant and it is becoming a big challenge on the farming system," he added.

Malawi is expected to harvest 3.8 million tons of maize for the 2010/11 season from 3.5 million tons in the previous season and the country has potential to harvest even more.

But the country's 2011/12 maize harvest is seen increasingly under threat given the likelihood of a drought in the first crucial phase of planting, which started in October.

Experts have said as weather patterns change, the outlook for rain-fed agriculture was particularly bleak in southern Africa's Limpopo river basin, which covers parts of Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Farmers in South Africa, the continent's biggest maize producer, suffered a set back during the harvesting of the 2010/11 season crop after unusually wet conditions made it difficult to access farms.

Early rains

In Zambia, farmers lost close to one million tons of the 2010/11 maize harvest after rains came earlier than expected.

"We are talking about a bumper harvest of 3.1 million tons but close to a million tons has gone to waste because farmers did not anticipate the rains coming early," Calvin Kaleyi, Zambia National Farmers Union spokesperson, said.

Early rain is causing problems again and catching Zambia's farmers - most of whom are peasants - off guard.

"The first week of October we had very heavy rains, which destroyed the harvest kept in open areas," Kaleyi said.

The change in weather patterns is also weighing on coffee production in Kenya as off-season rains affect the flowering process and hurts bean quality and output

"Predictability of seasons using indigenous knowledge has become problematic," said Johnson Irungu, director of crops at Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture.

According to aid group Oxfam, which has engaged with farmers in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, small-scale farmers are particularly vulnerable and less resilient to climate change.

"They consistently report hotter conditions year round and changes in the rainy seasons, notably later onset and earlier cessation as well as rain falling in more intense bursts," said Rashmi Mistry, Oxfam's climate change advocacy co-ordinator.

"These changes shorten growing seasons. Rains during the rainy season are also unpredictable."

Reduced yields

Mistry said an Oxfam analysis suggested that climate change could see maize productivity in southern Africa fall by 35% in the long term. It also points to reduced yields of sweet potatoes and yams by 13%, cassava by 8%, and wheat by 22% across Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.

The Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (Sacau) plans to take the farmers' weather concerns to a United Nations Climate change summit in Durban, which starts on Monday.

SACAU, which was granted observer status at the summit, wants the 190-nation gathering to put agriculture firmly on the climate change agenda and establish a work program outlining necessary responses for the sector.

To keep pace with the changing weather patterns, some farmers in the region are migrating to areas they think are cushioned from the effects of climate change, at least for now.

"In Zambia, we have seen farmers shifting from the Southern province to the Central province," said Kaleyi.

He added: "If the farming practices do not change, we are going to see a similar situation that took place in Southern province where trees were cut and the land was exposed to climate change effects."

With the majority of the rural population relying on wood for fuel and others desperate to clear new land for cultivation, deforestation was likely to continue.

Globally, tree felling is also a contributor to climate change because forests are major storing houses of carbon.

"More needs to be done because the trees we plant annually, they end up being burnt at the end of the year," Jumbe said.

Mistry said in addition to planting in new locations, other modifications to agricultural practices include changing planting dates, inter cropping and diversifying crops.

Forestry experts and climate change negotiators are expected to discuss issues on deforestation and how to help communities adapt to the changing environment on the sidelines of the Durban summit, the South Africa's department of agriculture said.

Read more on:    africa drought  |  southern africa  |  agriculture
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