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Social protection: Food Security

Multiple Authors

Climate Change and Social Protection

Briefing Note April 2008: Gina Ziervogel, Anna Taylor and Ruth Butterfield


The current focus on social protection programmes has emerged partly because of the opportunity these programmes provide in helping vulnerable communities strengthen their social safety nets so that they can buffer and respond to the range of stressors they face.

Many households in southern Africa are vulnerable to climate variability. The change in annual variation of rainfall along with frequent extreme events, such as flood, drought and heat waves impacts significantly on vulnerable groups whose livelihoods depend on natural resources. In the face of climate change these impacts are likely to be amplified.

In order to address the current impacts of climate variability and anticipated impacts of climate change, adaptation strategies are being supported to help communities deal with these impacts. There are many adaptation strategies that can be developed within sectors, such as the use of drought-resistant crops or the improvement in early warning systems. However, these require an understanding of the specific nature of climate impacts. Social protection, however, is intended to strengthen the social safety nets that underpin the livelihoods of vulnerable communities. If these safety nets are truly strengthened by social protection programmes, it is more likely that people will be able to respond to the many of the impacts of climate change themselves. This is particularly important in order to support the ‘agency’ of people and give them the choice in how they might choose to respond to the stressors they face.

There are certain social protections measures that could be focused on more than others in order to increase the resilience of communities in dealing with climate shocks and stressors and adapting to climate change impacts.

Areas in which social protection might strengthen the ability of households to respond to climate change: food security

It is expected that climate change is going to impact on many parts of the food system and hence impact the components of food security including availability, access and utilization of food (FAO, 2007). A key component of food availability is food production which is particularly important to small-scale farmers in southern Africa. The area suitable for agriculture, the length of growing seasons and yield potential, particularly along the margins of semi-arid and arid areas, are expected to decrease with climate change. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020. Local food supplies are projected to be negatively affected by decreasing fisheries resources in large lakes due to rising water temperatures, which may be exacerbated by continued over-fishing.

Wild foods, that many poor households rely on, particularly when there are few other food sources, are expected to change in their distribution. In a study in sub-Saharan African, of the 5,000 plants species examined, it is predicted that 81%-97% of the plant species’ suitable habitats will decrease in size or shift due to climate change. By 2085, between 25% and 42% of the species’ habitats are expected to be lost altogether. The implications of these changes are particularly great among communities that use these plants as food sources or for plant-based medicines.

Extreme events, such as droughts and floods, impact on crop and livestock productivity as well as impacting on access to food. If infrastructure is impacted by heat stress on roads or through increasing flood events that destroy bridges, roads and railways, distribution of food is hampered. Destroyed infrastructure, from floods, also impedes people’s access to markets to sell or purchase food.

Increasing the resilience of small-scale farming systems to deal with limited water availability, changes in the rainfall season, poor land quality and access to markets is therefore going to increase their ability to deal with climate-related shocks and stresses at the same time as reducing food insecurity.

Food utilization, a key component of food security, refers to the use of food and how a person is able to secure the nutrients and quality of food needed. As climate changes, so the types of seed cultivars and varieties that can be grown change so that they are more appropriately suited to the climate. This has implications for what people eat. For example, in southern Africa maize is a staple crop. However, sorghum fairs better if there is less rainfall. Yet, many people prefer to eat maize than sorghum and so continue to plant maize despite poor yields. If other produce that is easier to grow in a different climate becomes cheaper, people may change their food basket or it could result in people spending a greater percentage of their income on food if prices increase. In addition, people with certain diseases require improved nutrients to help fight disease, such as in the case of HIV/AIDS. Changing food security linked to climate change, can therefore impact on nutrition security of ill household members.

The support of social safety nets would allow households to choose whether they wanted to continue with agriculture given the associated challenges or if they would prefer to switch to other activities. Households are going to be more able to make this switch if they have a range of options and access to credit through social protection schemes. This ability to switch activities should be a key focus of support for adaptation to climate change and it is currently receiving little attention.

There are some good examples of community- induced social protection measure in Lesotho for food security (taken from Lesotho food security issues paper for Forum for Food Security in Southern Africa, M.M. Mphale, E.G. Rwambali and Sechaba Consultants). The communities have their own ‘informal’ social networks to guarantee or protect the vulnerable members from destitution and/or abuse. Most of these mechanisms are social safety nets based on good will of neighbours, community based organizations (CBOs) and/or blood relationship and have been extensively dealt with by Sechaba Consultants(1994 and 2000).

The range of informal measures includes production-oriented and access-oriented measures as well. In the case of production-oriented measures, first there is sharecropping of the fields of the destitute by the non-destitute, and sharing the produce on a 50:50 basis to ensure equity of access to food security. Whilst much of the literature on sharecropping in the region has focused on unequal power relations between rich landlords and poor landless peasants, there is evidence in Lesotho that, especially in the households affected by HIV/AIDS, sharecropping is reemerging as an important coping strategy. Households with land but limited labour can sharecrop land to those who are landless. It remains to be seen whether there are clear winners and losers in these new arrangements. Secondly, there is the practice of ‘Mafisa’ or cattle loans, in which household with more livestock give part of their stock to a destitute household in order for them to get milk in return and use of by-products like cow dung for fuel, and also for ploughing their fields. The third measure is that of ‘matsema’ or working parties where the destitute team-up with the non-destitute households so that their fields might be cultivated as well and they can then access food security. The fourth strategy is that of community farming whereby the chiefs’ fields are worked jointly by the community in order to enable the chief to feed the destitute members of the community. Despite their social safety net effect, some analysts have attacked these measures as facilitating exploitation of the poor by the rich and promoting accumulation of capital by the rich.

In the case of access oriented strategies the tendency has been to extend cash gifts to destitute and vulnerable households by the non-destitute ones to purchase food. In some cases, food hand outs are given out directly. Moreover, it is common for relatives to bring up some children of the destitute as an informal social protection measure. Relatives, the chief and good Samaritans play the lead role in informal social protection in Lesotho. However, changing family and households structures, and rising cost of living due to inflation and recession exert serious strain on these informal social safety nets (Sechaba Consultants, 2000).

In Nepal gender imbalances and social protection measures are listed by the FAO in recommendations to decrease vulnerability to food insecurity. The list of recommendations are:

– capacity building to enhance the human capital of vulnerable groups

– correcting gender imbalances – these persist despite commitment to international conventions for women’s advancement and are increasing women’s vulnerability to food insecurity.Gender-focused policy reforms and development programmes for improving reproductive health and child health need to be developed and implemented.

– reduce exclusionary cultural traditions based on gender and caste

– support the diversification of livelihoods

– improve agricultural productivity

– improve infrastructure in rural areas

– increase access to financial capital

– implement policies and programmes in favour of marginal and vulnerable groups

– develop targeted welfare programmes and social safety nets, these are needed to protect households with limited assets and few viable coping strategies from hunger. Policies and strategies need to be developed to address the needs of the most food insecure in areas where severe annual food deficits cause famine and help households living in these areas to better manage the risks they face

Taken from Food Insecurity and vulnerability in Nepal: Profiles of Seven vulnerable groups, FAO ESA Working paper.


Food and Agricultural Organisation. 2007. Climate Change and Food Security: A Framework Document.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change). 2007. Climate Change 2007: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability – Summary for Policymakers. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [Parry, M., Canziani, O. & Palutikof, J. (eds.)] Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 23pp.

Ziervogel, G. Africa Geographic. 2008. Climate change special issue.

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