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Climate forecast information can help poor African farmers adapt to variations in rainfall

Multiple Authors

First published in Sustainable Development Update Issue 1, Volume 6, 2006

The world’s climate is changing. Some of the most vulnerable people are those that depend directly on climate for their livelihood, but do not have the resources to cope with climate variability and weather extremes. Seasonal climate forecasts of rainfall might help these poor farmers adapt.

The new economic study released at the recent Small scale farmers in southern Africa live with a host of uncertainties. One of the major uncertainties is climate variability. In some years there is not enough rain for crops to survive and entire harvests fail. In other years, the total rainfall might be sufficient, but the timing of the rainfall can result in reduced yields. And in other years, heavy rainfall can wash away soil and damage crops. This is before accounting for the challenge of market variability, access to land and ill health that reduces labour availability.

Consequently, seasonal climate forecasts can be useful in order to enable farmers to respond to expected rainfall and adapt to climate variability on a yearly basis. Although this may help maximise production, it should be recognised that there are numerous stresses that farmers face and that climate is only one of them.

Poor farmers benefit most

Studies of smallholder farmers in Limpopo Province, South Africa, have investigated the utility of seasonal forecasts and compared them to other strategies that farmers use to deal with uncertainties. Some of these strategies can be called short-term coping strategies to cope with environmental or socio-economic factors. Other strategies are more long term and sustainable adaptation strategies that decrease the vulnerability to future impacts of a stress.

In order to adopt these strategies, additional information is often needed, for example seasonal forecasts. However, the market is a key determinant in the type of strategies employed and so support for climate adaptation alone might not be appropriate. Many farmers are indeed aware of the seasonal forecasts And some already use them to help determine what crops to grow and which strategies to use for reducing water requirements. It appears that poorer farmers tend to pursue more risk-averse strategies, for instance staggering planting to ensure that not all seeds would be wasted if the first planting does not germinate.

Women tend to plant crops primarily for home consumption although they are still aware of market demand. In general, poorer farmers seem to spend more time on multiple low-resource strategies and are therefore keen to include the seasonal climate forecasts as another piece of information in making their decisions. Wealthier farmers, on the other hand, pursue more market-driven strategies and seem more prone to risk planting a whole field with the same crop. Having access to funds, they can secure transport to take their produce to bigger markets which makes them less reliant on the local market. They spend more time on high input strategies and are sometimes more cautious of trusting the forecasts.

Gina Ziervogel & Sukaina Bharwani

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