9 April 2012

Rwanda: Experts Predict Long Droughts, Call to Increase Food Storage

Weather experts at Rwanda's Metrological Centre are warning of possible long droughts that may affect agricultural harvests and lead to a food crisis.

According to Anthony Twahirwa, the head of the weather forecast unit at the centre, the first rainy season of the year which runs from March to May has shown serious unpredictability presenting a rare case to forecasts for the first time in recent years.

"Normally, the country should have started receiving rains at a regular intervals from March this year but we are still waiting for it to start," Twahirwa explains.

Now in the second week of April, the forecasters contend the rains should be reaching their highest levels manifested in the form of heavy down pours but there are no signs of that yet. "What we are experiencing now is an overstayed La Niña period which is when there's too much cooling in the equatorial Pacific Ocean so we don't expect any rains during such a period," he says.

He adds that the La Niña period was supposed to have ended back in February to give way for rain at the start of March which never happened. What all Rwandans should be praying for is El Niño which is the direct opposite of La Niña. During El Niño, there's too much warming at sea which increases rising vapor in the atmosphere which in turn condenses to result into heavy rains.

Simply put, the seas are too cold to produce any moisture into the atmosphere and the forecasters are saying they have noticed no signs of this improving. The worst scenario would therefore be a long drought or fewer rains that will not support good food harvests.

Whether Rwanda is in for a drought or much less rains than expected, both scenarios will have a serious impact on the agricultural sector with reduced harvest and potentially even a food shortage.

At the moment, farmers are being told to be cautious when sowing as there might not be enough rain to support the seeds' germination and growth. Yet if farmers can't plant there will obviously be nothing to harvest at the end of the season, which will mean the country will have to resort to its food stores.

"Of course our job is to forecast the weather and interpreted the results to the policy makers in government, our advice therefore would be to limit any food exports from Rwanda as we might need it if the current situation fails to improve," Twahirwa says.

And indeed, during the cabinet meeting last week, the issue of the unfriendly weather was tabled by the Agriculture Minister with a view of preparing a response to the situation, and which will soon be made public.

Rising temperatures

While it is still possible that the harsh weather forecasts could be wrong, recent research on climate change in Rwanda has shown a very disturbing trend that has apparently been ongoing for the past four decades.

The study, carried out by Didace Musoni, a senior researcher at the Rwanda metrological center, reveals that the country's temperatures have been steadily going up since the 1981 with the warmest decade being that between 2001 and 2010. The year 2010 was also the hottest since 2001.

The researcher concludes that Rwanda's heat levels (measured based on 'mean extreme figures' for Kigali city) have risen by at least 0.6 degrees centigrade beyond normal. For example, comparing temperature levels for Kigali since 1971, the research indicated that the maximum temperature recorded between 2001 and 2010 was 35.4 degrees centigrade compared to 32.8 degrees recorded in the previous decade (1991 to 2000). This makes the 2001 to 2010 decade the hottest since 1971.

Yet the biggest challenge, Musoni says, is the fact that rain patterns have also become increasingly unpredictable for forecasters as indicated by rare behaviors among seasons. His research shows this unpredictability in a precise manner, after reviewing national rainfall figures since 1981 to find out the highest volume of rainfall received by the country in a space of 24 hours.

"The maximum rain in a 24-hour period was received on 22/07/2010, a month in which we don't expect any rains as it's supposed to be dry season," Musoni explains.

Human activities such as cutting trees have been blamed as contributing factors to an ever deteriorating climate and scientists warn that if governments don't come up with stringent measures to conserve and protect the environment from harsh human activities, then we are headed for disaster.

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