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Farmers' perspectives on a changing climate

Flooding in Bangladesh is becoming more severe as rainfall rates change and the frequency of storms increases (Abir Abdullah/Oxfam)
Flooding in Bangladesh is becoming more severe as rainfall rates change and the frequency of storms increases
Abir Abdullah/Oxfam

Around the world farmers are reporting that the seasons are changing. Seasons are becoming hotter and drier, rainy seasons shorter, more violent and increasingly erratic, and some temperate seasons are disappearing altogether. These observations are detailed by a study involving famers from across East and South East Asia, Southern and Eastern Africa and Latin America in a new Oxfam report titled What happened to the seasons? "The results are striking because of the extraordinary consistency they show across the world," explains John Magrath, Oxfam programme researcher and one of the authors.

"Changing seasonality may be one of the most significant impacts of climate change for poor farmers, and that is happening now," Magrath warns. Leaders at the recent G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, agreed that average global temperatures should not be allowed to rise more than 2°C. But according to Oxfam even a rise of 2°C entails "death, suffering and devastation" for at least 660 million people by 2030. Oxfam warns that due to the threats posed by climate change and changing seasons, chronic hunger will become more prevalent: "The true cost of climate change will not be measured in dollars, but in millions or billions of lives."

Changing seasonality

Farmers are observing increasingly unreliable precipitation during the long rains. In Uganda and Malawi for instance, rains are tending to come in short and localised downpours, interspersed with dry spells instead of falling consistently throughout the season. "Rains no longer have a particular pattern," Wilson Chiphale from Malawi observes. "Sometimes they come early when people have not prepared, sometimes they end too soon and the maize wilts, sometimes we experience very, very heavy rains that last up to four days, which washes away all the nutrients."

Unpredictable rainfall in Uganda makes it difficult for farmers to plan their cropping cycles (Geoff Sayer/Oxfam)
Unpredictable rainfall in Uganda makes it difficult for farmers to plan their cropping cycles
Geoff Sayer/Oxfam

Similar observations have been made by farmers elsewhere. "We used to get three good rains. Now we don't even get two," Gary Novamn from Haiti revealed. "There's no more rainy season, just the hurricane season." Increasing temperatures throughout the year, drier winters and more intense but less predictable monsoons have been reported by Bangladeshi farmers. "In my younger days, the rain, the winters and summers all had specific times," Radhika Devbarman recalls. "Now I am afraid of prolonged summer and sudden flood."

Gambling with the weather

With shortening growing seasons and erratic weather, it is increasingly difficult for many farmers to plan their cropping cycles. "We've stopped adopting seasonal planting because it's so useless," says an exasperated Florence Madamu from Uganda. "Now we just try all the time. We waste a lot of seed that way, and our time and energy." Paul Thiao, a Senegalese cereal farmer concurs: "Farmers have become gamblers. The system has been disturbed and now they must take a gamble on when the rain will come. But they are gambling with their livelihoods."

Crop choice is also being affected, with many reports indicating that staple crops, such as wheat, maize, rice and beans are suffering the most from seasonal changes. "Due to irregular rainfall and random floods, growing rice has become a big risk," Afazuddin Akhand from Bangladesh reveals. "Many farmers switch to fish farming or sell their land to industrialists, which is more profitable."

Adapting for survival

With predictions that seasonal changes are likely to get worse due to climate change, the authors insist that farmers need assistance to adapt. Many are already experimenting with new crop varieties, but diversification requires resources and, with limited access to water, land, capital and expertise, the poorest are increasingly disadvantaged. Women are particularly affected, as in Nepal, where frequent crop failure has seen more men migrating, leaving women to look after their families and produce a harvest, despite having the least access to resources.

Farmers, like Esther Njolo from Malawi, need support to adapt to changing weather patterns (Abbie Traylor-Smith/Oxfam)
Farmers, like Esther Njolo from Malawi, need support to adapt to changing weather patterns
Abbie Traylor-Smith/Oxfam

"Communities - especially women - see adaptation as difficult because there are limited alternative livelihoods, and creating these livelihoods needs to be part of long-term plans to deal with climate change," Magrath explains. In addition, the report calls for wide-ranging support to enable farmers to deal with unpredictability. This includes access to reliable and appropriate weather forecasts and food storage facilities to help smooth out fluctuations in supply and protect food against pests and diseases. At the same time, water management options such as water harvesting and flood defences would help farmers cope with increasingly unpredictable rainfall.

Greater access to crops and varieties, particularly drought-tolerant and fast-maturing crops, would also help farmers to cope. "After testing the soil and getting advice we think we can get more money from planting ginger and turmeric - they don't need much water, unlike rice and wheat," Karna Bahadur from Nepal remarks, "but we need support to do so."

A matter of justice

Many poor countries are already suffering from the impacts of climate change, despite being amongst the least responsible for the changes. In Bolivia the Civil Society Platform Against Climate Change, a citizen pressure group, is arguing that money for adaptation is a matter of global climate justice. One of their demands is for an international compensation fund for those who are suffering from climate change. Similar calls are coming from civil society in Bangladesh and elsewhere. "Certain changes - such as the continuing melting of glaciers - are inevitable even with emissions cuts," says Magrath, "so adaptation is essential, not just desirable. Yet rich countries continue to drag their feet about creating finance mechanisms to help poor countries to adapt."

Date published: September 2009


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