19 July 2013

Africa: For Africa to Feed Africa, We Must "Make Peace" With Climate Change

Photo: CGIAR
Robert Zougmoré.


A recent and widely-covered report from the World Bank gives voice to ominous predictions that have been circulating among climate scientists and agriculture experts for several years: higher temperatures and weather extremes caused by climate change are on course to dramatically increase the already daunting number of Africans who don't get enough to eat.

Indeed, the report predicts, for instance, that in just a few decades, 40 to 80 percent of the land now devoted to maize, millet and sorghum in sub-Saharan Africa could become unsuitable for these critically important staple crops. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has tried to stay upbeat in the face of such grim predictions. "I do not believe that the poor are condemned to the future scientists envision in this report," he said.

This week in Ghana, leaders from across the continent are gathering for Africa Agriculture Science Week 2013, whose theme is "Africa Feeding Africa." As the World Bank report shows, few things are likely to affect food self-sufficiency in Africa more than the changes in growing conditions caused by climate change. The conference presents a timely opportunity to consider how scientists can help Africans adapt to climate change so they are not "condemned to the future" their colleagues have so vividly outlined in the World Bank analysis.

One way to do this is to strengthen the adaptive capacity of African farmers by bringing climate science down from the upper atmosphere and into farmer's fields in the form of practical seasonal forecasts of probable rainfall patterns and temperature, which can guide farm management (i.e., planting, farm operations and harvesting decisions).

My organization, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is collaborating with low-income farmers around the world to overcome threats to agriculture and food security caused by climate change.

Over the last couple of years, we have conducted a pilot project in seasonal climate forecasting with farmers in Kaffrine, Senegal, located in the Sahel region. Global circulation models show that over the next 20 years, the farmers of Kaffrine could steadily experience a decline in rainfall and a rise in temperature. This provides an interesting laboratory for learning how to manage the risks of weather variability.

But one cannot just send a climate forecast to farmers and expect them to dutifully follow it. That's why in Kaffrine, we focused on developing a dialogue with farmers to integrate our knowledge with their traditional approaches.

For example, farmers talked to us about how they watch for unusual appearances of snakes and frogs, a shift in wind direction, and the sudden transformation of dark clouds to white as ways to anticipate the onset of rain. We discussed how these insights compare to what science tells us: that the onset of the rainy season is announced by a shift to humid southwesterly winds; that animals, including frogs and snakes, can be sensitive to this shift; and that rain squall lines involve dark stratocumulus clouds followed by white cumulonimbus clouds.

We also helped them understand how oceans can retain heat over a long period of time--something known as "ocean heat memory"--and that by assessing the current state of ocean temperatures, one can forecast how they are likely to affect precipitation trends over a period of several months.

We noted that, like traditional methods, our methods show only the probability of rain, not the certainty. Farmers ultimately asked us to provide forecasts for the number of rainy days in the season and for when monsoons were likely to arrive. Thus far we are finding that farmers equipped with the seasonal climate forecasts are making better planting and harvesting decisions than farmers who are not. And farmers appear eager to have these insights. We had initially planned on dividing the farmers in Kaffrine into two groups--one that received climate forecasts and one that did not--so we could observe the outcomes.

But ultimately we provided the forecasts to everyone because no one wanted to be left out.

Seasonal climate forecasts are just one tool among many that will be required to help Africans manage the challenging risks presented by climate change. But the farmers in Kaffrine have left me with a sense of optimism about Africa's ability to adapt. With the right investments, there are opportunities for Africa to make peace with climate change and realize a future in which Africa can feed Africa.

Robert Zougmoré is the West Africa Regional Program Leader for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.

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