17 February 2013

East Africa: Current Rains Seem to Have Taken Farmers By Surprise

East Africa is currently experiencing unusual rains. Traditionally, January all through up to early March is usually dry and farmers use the time to prepare fields for the next planting season.

Weather specialists say the current rains are caused by unusual moisture-carrying winds that are currently blowing towards the region from the Indian Ocean. That however is a mere symptom of a bigger problem called global warming.

Global warming presents two extreme and unpredictable weather situations - very wet and extremely hot which call for careful planning in order to strike a balance.

There has been a lot of talk about global warming and how to mitigate its effects but no concrete action has been taken to deal with this phenomenon. The real challenge, as things appear now, is in striking a balance the two extreme conditions - plenty of water and severe drought.

The farming communities should particularly be empowered to adapt to changes in weather patterns. It seems no longer tenable to think about traditional seasons.

East Africa can therefore no longer afford to take this situation for granted. We must not watch as the water from the current rains flow away or evaporate into the atmosphere because we don't know what will happen next month.

Investments in early warning mechanisms, water harvesting technologies and mass sensitization of farmers to abandon the past and embrace the present hold the future of agriculture in our part of the world.

All east African member states are currently talking about modernizing agriculture, the major source of livelihood to a majority of east Africans. But it is doubtful if those who depend on farming as well policy makers fully appreciate the core aspects of modern farming. Often, modernization of agriculture has been viewed within the lens of use of modern tools of cultivating the land and harvesting; planting improved seeds and appropriation of large chunks of land for large-scale production. And scientists have indeed done a wonderful job of producing improved varieties of cereal such as rice and maize, roots crops such as cassava and potatoes as well as fruits and vegetables.

Despite these innovations, productivity remains low and famine looms large because the most important component of modern farming - provision of adequate water - has not yet been tackled. This means that despite availability of improved seeds, pesticides, tractors and all modern inputs, our farmers continue to depend on rain-fed agriculture just like the early man did during the stone-age.

We cannot talk about producing for the market while continuing to depend of seasonal rain, whose timing we have absolutely no control over. And as the current rains have shown, it can rain any time of the year and can as well be dry any month of the year.

Any investment in modern farming must therefore urgently look into rolling out massive infrastructure projects aimed at harvesting and storing water during the time of plenty (such as now) for uses during the increasingly more frequent and prolonged droughts.

It is not uncommon to see farmers lose entire maize crop at flowering stage because of a small dry spell when just two weeks of irrigation could save the day.

Governments and their development partners need to look into investing in underground community water reservoirs to store run-off water for use during dry seasons so that farmers can produce throughout the year.

We also need well constructed valley dams to store the water that collects in these seasonal swamps. This is especially necessary in the cattle corridors where cattle keepers have sometimes lost herds for lack of water while some have been forced to migrate to neighboring countries in search of water. Such movements have resulted into bitter conflicts between cattle keepers and cultivators.

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