Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Climate changing agriculture

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

Agnes Boti struggles to bend down as she attempts to replant maize seeds in her garden. Her crop, which was supposed to be food for her family for this whole year, was washed away in February by floods that ravaged Malawi’s Southern Region.
Boti is suffering from malaria, but she says she is feeling better compared to her husband and two children. Soon after the floods, her whole household was afflicted by malaria following an outbreak that hit Chikwawa, the district she stays in.
The woman’s family is among the 190,000 people that were displaced by the floods in January this year. According to Malawi government’s disaster management department, half of the country’s 28 districts were affected by the heavy rains and storms.
“We helplessly run for our lives and watched from a distance as our house and gardens were being washed away by the floods. We lost almost everything that we owned,” laments Boti.
She says her family has been staying in makeshift camps together with a lot of other flood victims.
Crocodile attacks were also on the increase following the flooding of the Shire River, a crocodile-infested river in the southern part of Malawi, according to another flood victim, Maxwell Vizya.
“I was nearly maimed by a crocodile at night right in front of my house which was water-logged followed the heavy rains,” says Vizya. He said the river had overflowed into his village making it a swamp and a new home to crocodiles.
Similar floods occurred in Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe since December 2007, with disastrous repercussions for about half a million people in southern Africa. Following the heavy rains and floods, diseases like cholera and malaria claimed further casualties.
In recent years, climatic changes have been widely noted in Malawi. Between 1999 and 2005, the country experienced droughts that wiped out agricultural crops from the country’s fields. Five million of the country’s 13.5 million people were in need of food aid.
Such heavy impairment hit Malawi hard, which generates up to 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from agriculture and 85 percent of the country’s population depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
Ted Chingolopiyo, a farmer from Lilongwe in central Malawi, experienced a fierce water scarcity. “All my crops dried up in the garden before they matured. My family had to survive on wild roots and mice for six months before we got food aid from government.”
Chingolopiyo says his two children, aged five and seven, were treated for malnutrition following the ordeal.
The loss caused by floods and droughts is of great concern to the Malawi government. Minister for Lands and Natural Resources Khumbo Chirwa describes the changes in agriculture fortunes as effects of climate change.
Chirwa says Malawi has, therefore, developed a climate change adaptation strategy, called the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA), to build capacity to cope with climate shocks especially for vulnerable groups such as the farmers.
“The strategy focuses on eight sectors namely agriculture, land use and forestry, fisheries, energy, wildlife, water, human health and gender,” says Chirwa.
The NAPA is being used to implement measures to tackle the effects of climate change. Priorities in the strategy include the creation of buffers for the poor and most vulnerable from effects of climate shocks.

Concrete measures outlined in the NAPA include the restoration of forests in flood-prone areas, as in Boti’s village, to reduce flooding and siltation. This will maintain land fertility and help to develop sustainable livelihoods. One challenge is improving the utilisation of available water sources such as Lake Malawi for irrigation.

The plan of action also highlights improvement of agricultural production by teaching smallholder farmers to use advanced agricultural techniques in soil and water management.
In February this year, President Bingu wa Mutharika launched the NAPA. He said government was to strengthen its response to climate change and integrate environmental and climate risk-related issues into development policies and programmes.
Following the launch, government departments especially those dealing with forestry, water and agriculture, have been sensitising people around the country on the NAPA programme.
The local people have since started bracing themselves against the effects of climate change. Most smallholder farmers are now moving away from total dependence on rain-fed agriculture towards irrigation farming.
Boti, for example, is now concentrating on replanting crops in her field in this dry season.
“We never used to grow crops in the dry season but my whole community is now relying on irrigation to produce food. We will therefore be able to avoid starvation in case of more floods or drought this year,” says Boti.
Other adaptation strategies that have been adopted by smallholder farmers include crop diversification into growing drought resistant and short duration crops like legumes and producing high value crops.

“We are being encouraged to grow crops that will provide us with a lot of income such as paprika and mushrooms. We’ve also started concentrating on livestock farming and bee-keeping,” says Boti.

The smallholder farmer is also part of a village disaster management committee, which has since been formed to map up ways that the local people can help each other in coping with current and future climate change effects.

Boti says her committee has agreed to construct water reservoirs to catch rain water for irrigation in case of a drought, to manage land better by producing manure and to intensify civic education within her district on climate change and adaptation plans that the people can adopt.
Meanwhile, the adaptation strategies can easily be noticed in her area. Villagers are busy planting potatoes, paprika and mushrooms at a time that was deemed as a break from agricultural activities.
Chingolopiyo says his family has escaped the malaria outbreak. Many people in his area, including him, have now heeded government’s call to always use bed-nets to avoid being beaten by mosquitoes which carry the malaria parasite.

“We have been receiving free mosquito nets from health facilities for some time but most of us were using them as fishing nets. We have now realised that it’s much more beneficial for us to use them against the prevention of malaria,” says Chingolopiyo.

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