By Pilirani Semu-Banda
LILONGWE, Dec 26 - Climate change will affect the Zambezi River basin more severely than any other river system in the world, according to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Increased floods, drought and increased levels of disease threaten lives and livelihoods all along the river’s length.
"Frequent floods and intense droughts are becoming more frequent occurrences in our region. We need to use our existing water resources as a catalyst for development so that we don’t get overwhelmed by the effects of climate change," said Msibi.
Coordinator for the Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa project, Miriam Kalanda-Sabola, told IPS that farming communities in Malawi and Tanzania, for instance, have in the past 30 years experienced considerable negative climate change effects in both semi-arid and high rainfall areas.
Throughout the basin, agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and the people of these states are facing declining agricultural productivity which is being linked to worsening poverty and increasing food insecurity.
The semi-arid areas of Tanzania have seen declining crop yields, poor livestock production, and increasing domestic animal diseases. Many communities have abandoned the production of traditional crops. But farmers in areas of high rainfall are also in difficulty.
"The high rainfall areas in Tanzania are facing declining soil fertility, stunted crop growth, destruction of mature crops in the field and stored ones," said Kalanda-Sabola.
In Malawi's semi-arid areas, communities are seeing increasing periods of hunger and loss of property due to floods while droughts have reduced grazing for livestock due to droughts.
Meanwhile, the high rainfall areas are experiencing soil erosion and frequent landslides, increasing incidence of malaria and loss of crops and animals due to floods.
"The most vulnerable victims facing the effects of the changes in climatic conditions are the poor, women, children, elders, people with less education, sick people and communities in areas with poor infrastructures and less social network," said Kalanda-Sabola.
New and increased levels of disease are also having a negative impact on agriculture, according to Professor Moses John Chimbari, Deputy Director at Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre (HOORC), a research institute at the University of Botswana.
He says droughts and floods due to rising temperatures are creating a conducive environment for diseases such as malaria and meningitis. He said there are already many more episodes of malaria in the riparian states because of the favourable atmosphere for mosquitoes that has already been created due to the climatic changes.
"This has a great impact on agriculture and the economies since people are sick most of the times and they are not being very productive," said Chimbari.
He said most countries in the Zambezi riparian states have little capacity to adapt to high incidence of diseases and that this makes many people even more vulnerable.
He worried that HIV/AIDS is also adding to these stresses.
"We need to reverse the trends that increase vulnerability to climate change through food security. We will actually be the most vulnerable region if we continue to be where we are now," said Chimbari.
The researcher called for states to improve their health facilities and be able to cope with the health hazards being posed by climate change.
The adaptation strategies that are being employed in Malawi include switching to drought-resistant crops like cassava, increased irrigation farming, growing early-maturing hybrid varieties of crops and the use of organic manure.
In Tanzania, farmers are also turning to drought resistant crops such as sunflowers, and employing small scale irrigation, improved social networks such as cooperatives and the use of improved seed varieties.
Kalanda-Sabola approves of all these strategies and further calls for more livestock farming -- especially in the high rainfall sites -- and timely access to vital and simple information on climate change and variability.
She says farmers in the region are being hampered by resource limitations including lack of enough crop land, lack of accessibility to loans and farm inputs. She underlines the need for a strengthening of capacity for implementation among communities.
"Most farmers are failing to meet transaction costs necessary to acquire adaptation measures as they also have no or little access to external markets," she said.