GFAR blog

Keeping an eye on the weather


In the words of Professor Paramu Mafongoya,’The importance of science is to solve problems’. Climate change is a very big problem for food security and for smallholder farmers, particularly in Africa, and it was one of the topics up for discussion during the ‘Keeping Science Relevant and future-focused’  session , part of the third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD3) held in Johannesburg recently.

Professor Mafongoya, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was one of the key speakers at the session in which the impacts of issues such as climate change and variability were discussed.

Both the  incidence and intensity of droughts and floods are predicted to increase, threatening food security, particularly in the smallholder sector which relies on rain-fed agriculture and accounts for 90% of staple food production. The increased rainfall variability, in terms of its onset, cessation, amount and distribution in the smallholder sector, coupled with inappropriate varieties and inadequate fertilization, have resulted in low yields of less than 1 t ha, and in some cases complete crop failure. The poor crop production practices and lack of appropriate weather information make smallholder farming vulnerable to climate change.

Farmers in most cases start land preparation after the onset of the rains and much of the time moisture is lost before they finally plant. Due to the mismatch between the timing of optimum moisture conditions and the crop’s peak water requirements potential yields of over 6 t ha-1 are never attained in the smallholder sector. Crop production in the smallholder sector is prone to risks as a result of erratic, variable rainfall and lack of weather forecasting knowledge.

It is crucial to generate information on seasonal characteristics to use the rainfall patterns for crop production in relation to water use efficiency. Decision makers need to be aware of climate change risks and  incorporate them into planning of crop management practices, as well as establishing national and international response strategies to climate change.

The impact of the changing frequency of extreme weather events on food supplies and food security also needs to be examined under various socio-economic scenarios. There is a lack of information on the characteristics of smallholder farmers that are resilient or vulnerable to climate-related risk at the household and community levels.

Addressing this gap will increase our understanding of how communities cope with the impacts of climate-related hazards and how to manage climate variability in agriculture-dependent communities. Vulnerability assessments have been used to explore the interactions between households and their socio-physical environments at national level. However,  relying on national census data overshadows significant local level variability in terms of access to assets and entitlements.  Data aggregation makes some poor communities seem less vulnerable than they really are.

The changing rainfall patterns and depletion of water resources make the existing cropping patterns less productive, suggesting a need for investment in better crop management systems. The main adaptation options include crop diversification, conservation agriculture (CA) and water harvesting. For example, dry spells during the growing season can be mitigated by maximizing plant water availability and uptake by improving timeliness of operations, crop management and soil fertility management. Our farmers are well informed about their land and water, they often try new things to see if they can’t push the techniques and knowledge further. One farmer had a massive Fleck water softener installed in his artificial watering system to see what the results might be, we are waiting for his control crop to see!

The challenge with these adaptation options is to understand how they could be contextualized in the smallholder sector, as the most vulnerable to climate change and variability. One factor that constraints applicability of some practices that can be used to optimize risks associated with climate change is the length of time it takes to do such  studies.

Most studies on water conservation approaches, such as mulching and tillage, were for periods of less than 3 years . The major weakness with this research is that it does not relate the results to the prevailing weather conditions. There is a need to explain the results considering season-to-season and within- season variability of rainfall that is evident in sub-Saharan Africa, especially under rain fed conditions.

The variations in rainfall are also likely to have an impact on the beneficial effects of rate of return that farmers may expect to receive from adopting innovative management practices. It is vital to note that field-based investigations are hardly ever sufficient to establish robust relationship between rainfall and its distribution and the resultant crop responses to contrasting management practices.

It is important that more detailed climate-induced risk analysis accompanies field-based research. A number of studies on bio-economic models show that seasonal forecasts have the potential to improve management leading to improved crop production

All of this information is  relevant to achieving future development goals, and particularly for the profitability of smallholder farmers.  It is important that the GCARD partners study and characterize the vulnerability of households to climate change at community level, understand the nature of the weather changes, develop decision support tools and assess the importance of weather data to analyze the risks associated with climate variability and climate-related risks to crop production with the aim of improving decision making and ultimately increase food security.

Blogpost and photo by Zira Mavunganidze, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – ziramavunganidze(at)
Picture courtesy: The Dust Bowl (Wikipedia)

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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