Sierra Leone: Farmers in 'Life and Death' Battle With Climate Shifts - Study

London — Changing weather patterns as a result of climate change are making life much harder for farmers in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, a country already battling with poverty, a recent study says.

With 70 percent of people depending on farming for a living, erratic rainfall leading to decreasing yields is forcing many to find other ways of making money, sometimes creating additional problems, according to the study's authors.

"This is about life and death, so there is need for them to come up with something that will keep them going," study leader Kabba Santigie Bangura of the University of Sierra Leone's department of geography said at the Mary Kingsley Zochonis Lecture at King's College this week.

Farmers in Sierra Leone rely on a traditional pattern of a six-month rainy season followed by a six-month dry season to know when to plant their crops.

But 76 percent of the 250 farmers who participated in the study said those weather patterns are seriously changing. Bangura and his co-authors recount that farmers noticed that now "rainfall does not follow any regular pattern."

Adding to the problem, Bangura said there is a lack of reliable meteorological information to help farmers track and plan for the changes.

A decade of civil war in the 1990s similarly left Bangura and his co-authors without any historical weather data or archives to use as a baseline for their research, which was published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology.

The lack of meteorological data means farmers have a hard time knowing when is the best time to plant crops, Bangura said. With little money to replace seeds if they get it wrong, a lot rides on their guess.

If they plant right before a dry period, they may not have enough water to keep crops alive and prospering. Alternatively, a flood could keep them from planting at all, or make them lose their crop shortly after they do.

This uncertainty about the best time to plant has had a significant impact on farmers' yields, the study says. Bangur told the story of a 54-year-old man from the coastal settlement of Rokel who watched as the yields from his family's swampy farm dwindled from 100 bushels of rice a year in his father's time, to just 40 bushels now.

SHORT ON FOOD AND INCOME

In a country where so many people depend on agriculture to survive, this variability in rainfall translates to a country full of people short on food and income.

"That's had very direct impacts on their lives," Bangura said, "even affecting the quantity and frequency of meals."

Many families have had to ration their food, eating only one meal late in the day instead of the three they are used to.

Lower incomes also mean it's harder for farmers like the one from Rokel to afford to keep their kids in school. In the end, as the study points out, this translates to a lower literacy rate among the population.

Farmers told the researchers they are doing anything they can to supplement their income from farming in light of weather changes - including things that may threaten their long-term prospects.

Many people, for instance, resort to selling whatever they can. During his lecture, Bangura showed photographs of rusty metal pipes sticking out of concrete blocks. These pipes, he explained, used to be connected to water pumps, but in peoples' desperation for money, a lot of pumps have been disconnected and sold. That puts pressure on the few pumps that remain, making them more prone to break and further exacerbating water shortages.

The study also recounts that men travel to cities more and more in search wage labour to supplement meager farming profits. But even that may be becoming less viable as alternative jobs - such as fishing - become scarcer.

"The option to migrate for work has not been favourable over the past five years because of declining fish catches," said a member of the Rokupr Mothers Club, a movement of mothers using community gardens to pay for their daughters' educations.

Based on their interviews with farmers, the authors had a few policy recommendations to help improve the situation, such as restoring water pumps, establishing meteorological stations to more accurately track weather patterns, and encouraging more collective action by farmers.

Bangura said many farmers in Sierra Leone emphasized that measures are needed to ensure foreign aid gets to them rather than falling into corrupt hands.

Bangora was particularly enthusiastic about the need to rebrand climate change's effects in Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa as a human rights issue. Then, he said, farmers would be better placed to get the foreign support they need.

"The local strategies that they're using are not enough," he said. "Leaving them to battle the impact, they may not succeed." - Thomson Reuters Foundation

Jake Lucas is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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