One village tells Africa’s climate story

One village tells Africa’s climate story

Date: December 7, 2011
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As part of a team implementing a project on climate change adaption in the Lake Kyoga plains in Pallisa District, Eastern Uganda, I have seen first-hand how climate change affects agro-pastoral communities. For anyone who is doubtful, or who mistakenly still thinks that climate change is something to worry about in the future, they should take a trip to Lake Kyoga – just one example of what is happening in communities across the continent.

The community here is poor, but densely populated, with most of the households having more than 10 family members. Polygamous households have 20 to 40 or more family members. Many homes have very young children, who are visibly malnourished. Some have kwashiorkor, and many are stunted. The women are generally emaciated, a sign of underfeeding.

Stakeholder groups reported that prior to the year 2000 they had stable rainy seasons. Then they started noticing that rains were irregular, at times coming later than expected. When they did come, they were unusually heavy, causing severe soil erosion.

In 2007, floods resulted in the loss of all their crops. In 2009, the rains came in February, a month later than expected, but declined in April and stopped abruptly by May for the rest of the year. In 2010, rains continued throughout the harvest season and again caused crop losses, especially of cowpea, groundnuts and cotton.

Both women and men reported scarcity of food in the dry season, leading to death of vulnerable groups such as young children and the elderly. Vegetables also became scarce and they could hardly afford two meals a day, even when they had food crops like cassava.

A strategy had to be adopted. The community decided to plant their crops early. Before the rains, farmers prepare their fields and plant sorghum and millet so that they germinate before the rains start. These crops are also drought resistant.

Women were worst affected by food scarcity to the point that they started collecting wild leaves to feed the family and hiring out their services to well to-do neighbours in exchange for food. Those near the lake would go out fishing, and every morning groups of women can be seen trotting to the lake with their fishing baskets on their heads.

However, the lake is a communal resource and therefore now overexploited. The women come back late in the afternoon with tiny fish, which they sell by the roadside with just a few kept for household use.

Water for household use is a big problem as well, with most of the spring wells drying up in the dry season. Some community members have dug up wells near their households. As women battled food scarcity, men were concerned about water and pasture for livestock.

Sometimes, even adaptation strategies can cause other kinds of problems. The community has taken on rice cultivation as an adaptation strategy, but the resulting encroachment on the swamps is causing havoc for livestock.

One day we stopped to take a photograph of one of the severely encroached swamps. A group of men urged us to act on the massive destruction of the swamps by rice growers as the animals no longer had access to water or pasture. The swamp used to be a communal grazing and watering area for livestock. Around the homesteads, we saw cattle and goats tethered in the scorching sun with absolutely nothing to eat.

Farmers in the community now grow sorghum, millet, cowpeas and cassava. However, due to lack of appropriate post-harvest technologies, they sell off some of the crops immediately after harvest. The invest some of their proceeds from crops in buying chicken and turkeys so that they can sell them in times of need. However, this strategy did not seem to be successful as in most homesteads there were hardly any chickens. High poultry losses occur because of diseases, predators and lack of feeds, especially during droughts.

The farmers have formed some village saving groups. Group members contribute small amounts of money and then give one member, on a rotating basis, to start up a small business. The businesses created so far include making local alcoholic drinks, establishing small eating places, selling household essential items and brick making.

The Lake Kyoga plains community is just one small village, yet according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), agriculture is the mainstay of 70% of Africa’s population. While both men and women are affected, women play an important role in food production and agriculture is central to their livelihoods. If we do not protect and conserve productive land, household livelihoods across the continent are at risk.

The climate change problem is broad and needs a multi-concerted effort for communities to adapt more fully to the challenges posed by climate change. Communities also have to start using indigenous knowledge systems to preserve their crop. This way, small holder farming can be successful and communities can be food secure.

Rose Omaria is a Research Scientist with the National Livestock Resources Research Institute in Uganda. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service and African Woman and Child Feature Service special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.


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