PEMBA, Zambia — A few decades ago, corn farmers here in Zambia’s rural southern province could predict when the annual rains would begin almost to the day.
Now, October often stretches into November, and November into December, before the rain comes.
The rainy season in this largely poor southern African nation, a study shows, has been getting shorter, more intense and more erratic, especially over the last 20 years, symptoms of the longer-term climatic changes occurring across Africa. When the Live Earth global series of concerts kicks off Saturday, part of the focus will be on Africa, likely to be hit particularly hard by climate change, even though it is the lowest emitter of greenhouse gases. One of the eight concerts planned to raise awareness about the issue is in the South African metropolis of Johannesburg.
Between rainfall changes and slowly rising temperatures, according to the study concluded last year by the Center for Environmental and Economic Policy of Africa at South Africa’s University of Pretoria, Zambian farmers are very vulnerable to climate changes.
Timothy Hampuwo, a 66-year-old farmer and local government councilor, agrees. “It’s unpredictable. It’s a pure gamble,” he said at a June agriculture show in the tiny farming town of Pemba, almost 100 miles south of the capital city of Lusaka.
In the past, the rains started in October and ended in March. They still end in March, but last year, for instance, no serious rains fell until Christmas.
To deal with the changes, which have driven some farmers to other, wetter parts of Zambia, Hampuwo uses locally developed maize seeds designed to mature early and survive drought years. “It resists heat even when you have a short rainfall,” he notes. It’s one way, Hampuwo says, that farmers in the region are learning “to go with the weather.”
In southern Africa, a region already wracked with high rates of poverty, HIV/AIDS and malaria, scientists are warning that climate changes could compound the challenges of disease, food shortages and energy production if businesses and governments don’t start to adapt.
The Maize Research Institute, a Lusaka-based seed company that produces the seed used by Hampuwo, is constantly updating its seed varieties. Its director Vladimir Rostanovic, said changes in climate also make crops vulnerable to new diseases.
Shorter rainy seasons have meant more frequent and harsher droughts for farmers from Malawi to South Africa, while more intense rainfall has meant more flooding for many rural villagers.
Botswana’s Okavango Delta may also feel the effects, with a 2005 scientific study predicting the migration of certain species.
The South African government expects malaria to start occurring in regions that previously had little risk, as increasing temperatures lead to increased mosquito breeding, a problem for other countries as well.
Few could be hit harder by the changes than Africa’s subsistence farmers, who have little access to information or money to buy modern irrigation equipment.
Some farmers have switched to earlier maturing, more drought resistant crops like sweet potatoes. But years of government support for maize growing and the fact that few Zambians go a day without eating nshima, the cornmeal-based dietary staple have made many farmers reluctant to stop growing corn.
“It’s harder to convince these guys to stop growing maize than to convince these G-8 countries to stop climate change,” said Gilbert Vlahakis, a Zambian seed distributor.
The Conservation Farming Unit, part of the Zambia National Farmer’s Union, is teaching farmers conservation-friendly planting techniques.
Despite the new public attention that wealthy donor nations — as well as some government officials in Zambia and other African nations — are focusing on climate change, it is just one factor threatening agriculture in southern Africa. Officials at the Conservation Farming Unit say government farming policies have been long been inefficient and too focused on the production of maize. Local politicians in Zambia’s Southern province, which used to be the nation’s breadbasket, complain that the government has failed to invest in dams to store water.
The Center for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa’s study recommends that the Zambian government remove subsidies on crops that do not perform well in a changing climate. It also recommends investment in climate data collection and forecasting technology.
The Zambian government is trying to attract foreign investors to help construct hydroelectric dams throughout the country, and Ministry of Agriculture officers work with farmers in rural areas on climate issues.
Most governments in the region are strapped for cash and expertise.
South Africa, the region’s economic powerhouse, has pledged an ambitious strategy to deal with climate change.
South Africa’s energy parastatal, Eskom, recently funded a study looking at the impact of the climate change and rainfall patterns on energy production in Zambia, which relies almost entirely on hydroelectric power from its many waterfalls, including the famed Victoria Falls.
Francis Yamba, a mechanical engineer who runs the Center for Energy, Environment and Engineering in Lusaka, said that engineers are considering building canals from the Congo River Basin to the Zambezi River Basin to ensure water even in drought years. Yamba also says farmers should be producing energy from their agricultural waste.
Solutions to the challenge of climate change might not all require advanced technology.
Every summer in Zambia’s Western province, when flood waters move in, the king of the Lozi tribe leads his people from the flood plains up to higher ground, near his summer palace, in an elaborate ceremony that draws many tourists.
Environmental experts are now taking a new look at this tradition and wondering if it could work in other parts of Zambia, where changing rainfall patterns have spurred floods.
“They’re indigenous coping measures,” Yamba notes. “They’ve been doing that for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why not use traditional Lozi culture?”
July 06, 2007 — By Joseph J. Schatz, Associated Press
Article posted by: (29 March 2014)