Local climate change data is securing food and livelihoods in southern Africa

April 29, 2015

Farmers are shifting cropping patterns in response to climate change in Swaziland

Bill Morton

Climate change and variability pose a major threat to farming, food security, and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa. Impacts, including a predicted 2°C rise in temperature, will increase the region’s vulnerability to extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, stressing limited water resources, and destabilising already fragile crop and livestock farming systems. More than 70% of the population, including a large proportion of smallholder farmers, currently rely on rain-fed agriculture. By 2020, crop yields in some countries could be reduced by up to 50%, leaving as many as 600 million people exposed to increased water stress. The cost of adapting to climate change in many of these countries is expected to amount to at least 5-10% of GDP.

Smallholder farmers need access to reliable information on how climate change may impact them in the future, so that they can adapt their farming practices and protect their livelihoods over the long term. IDRC-funded research led by the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) is working to address information gaps at the local-level, with a focus on select locations across Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland.

Understanding climate impacts on future food production

The research team generated local-level climate change projections to 2050 and used these to simulate future crop performance. Findings reveal increasing rainfall variability and rising temperatures, by up to 3°C in extreme cases, across the three research locations. These and other factors indicate that maize yields may decrease by as much as 20% by 2050, and that the availability of suitable land for growing staple cereal crops may decrease by 5-25%.  

Based on the projections, the research team identified a range of location-specific measures that can be used by farmers to adapt to changing conditions, including modifying cropping patterns and planting schedules. Early planting, for instance, is recommended in Malawi, although later planting is likely more effective in Lesotho. In Swaziland, farmers are already shifting cropping patterns, with 66% of households taking advantage of early rains to plant their crops.

Agronomic Woman farmer in Swazilandmanagement practices that can increase profitability for farmers were also assessed. In Malawi, for instance, conservation agriculture can double profitability, and fertilizer application and irrigation can lead to increases of 1.8 and 1.72 times respectively. Affordability is a central consideration for farmers, with choice of options dependant on their perceived costs. For example, in Malawi, 21% of farmers chose not to use fertilizers since they are considered too expensive and 38% felt that conservation agriculture entails high labour costs.

Measuring vulnerability at the household level

Climate forecasts and crop models were integrated with results from a Household Vulnerability Index (HVI), a tool that helps identify which households to target with which climate solutions, based on a number of socio-economic factors. It then classifies households into one of three levels of vulnerability (i.e. low, medium, and high). Researchers surveyed 10,000 households across the three study locations and found that between 58% and 98% are moderately vulnerable, requiring urgent but temporary external assistance to recover from shocks. In the short term, however, projected average temperature increases of 1.8-2.4°C, combined with rainfall variability are expected to push at least 15% of these households into the high vulnerability category.

Communicating for policy impact

The research team used a range of tools to communicate results to decision-makers. Six national policy dialogues were organized across the three countries, which served to present empirical evidence on vulnerability, climate forecasts, crop modelling, and the economic feasibility of different adaptation options. Theatre for Policy Advocacy was used, bringing climate change information to life through high-energy, visually striking performances. The project also collaborated with a local media company, No Line Productions, to create TV segments that promote the application of climate-smart agriculture more broadly across southern Africa. Knowledge generated by the project has directly contributed to national climate change policy processes, including the Swaziland National Adaptation Programme of Action and the Government of Lesotho’s new Climate Change Policy. Each of these policies – and the programmes they result in – are now better equipped to address the local level impacts of climate change and variability, and to support smallholder farmers’ efforts to adapt.

The project "From Research to Policy: Linking Climate Change Adaptation to Sustainable Agriculture" is funded through the IDRC Research Initiative on Adaptation to Climate Change in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean with funds from the Government of Canada's fast-start financing.
Bill Morton is an Ottawa based writer.
Photo (left): FANRPAN
A farmer in Swaziland