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DEVELOPMENT: Climate Change Likely to Increase African Hunger Woes

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - Africa, the continent already most affected by hunger and food scarcity, is likely to see its woes increased due to climate change and the changing rain patterns it provokes, experts and scientists say.

According to data gathered by the German Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research, variability in the rain patterns in Africa, especially in the Western region, has substantially increased since the early 1980s.

Harald Kunstmann, director of the institute, says that while in the Sahel region the drought that set in through the 1970s and 1980s has not radically changed, in the Volta delta region the yearly rain precipitation amount remains constant as a whole, but now follows erratic patterns.

For the Volga delta, “we have observed a small increase in rain amount of some five percent per year,” Kunstmann, a researcher in climate change and terrestrial hydrology, told IPS. At the same time, “there is a drastic decrease of rain in April, the month that marks the transition from the dry to the rainy season in the area,” he said.

This decrease at times reaches up to 70 percent of precipitation.

Another observed phenomenon in the Volta region during the last 40 years is the shortening of the rainy season, and a delay of its beginning of up to 30 days.

“Global warming changes the traditional fresh water circuit,” Kunstmann told IPS. Higher average temperatures lead to higher humidity in the air, and thus to more intensive rain, but also to faster evaporation and condensation. “Consequences of such changes in the fresh water circuits are more frequent floods and longer and more intensive droughts,” Kunstmann said.

For agriculture, such erratic weather has dramatic consequences. Both floods and drought destroy seeds and fields, abnormal weather forces changes in the farmers’ plantation schedules and routines.

Such changes are confirmed already both by farmers in Africa, and by researchers in the industrialised world.

Namanga Ngongi, a farmer from Cameroon, and president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), told a recent conference on agriculture and climate change in Salzburg, Austria, that “global warming is already destroying African agriculture. There are more and more frequent droughts, more frequent floods, and also more destruction,” he said.

This destruction of agriculture through climate change adds to the increasing hunger already present in numerous African countries.

According to the World Hunger Index, as measured by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), since 1990 hunger increased drastically in nine African countries: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, hunger increased by 67 percent, in Swaziland by 32 percent, in Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Liberia by 19, 18, 17 and 16 percent respectively.

In that period, Egypt was the only African country able to substantially reduce food scarcity and hunger. All other successful developing countries were either East Asian, Arab, or Latin American nations.

The German non-governmental organisation Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Aid) arrived at similar conclusions. According to its 2009 World Hunger Index, in at least 28 countries, mostly in the Sub Saharan region, hunger reaches “serious, even very serious dimensions,” the report says.

World Hunger Aid also ranks the Democratic Republic of Congo as the country with the worst results in the fight against hunger, followed by Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Chad, and Ethiopia.

Other than climate change and war, incorrect policy tools are at the root of the failure to combat hunger, said Michael Windfuhr, of the German church organisation Brot fuer die Welt (Bread for the World). “State budgets for agriculture in most African state have been reduced by some 50 percent in the last 20 years,” Windfuhr told IPS. “But also international cooperation and development aid has moved away from supporting local food production in developing countries.”

Furthermore, wrong agricultural policies have damaged the soil in many African countries, making it more susceptible to erosion, and reducing farming yields, Windfuhr added.

“To make things worse, subsidies for agriculture in Europe and North America and increasing export of these highly subsidised agricultural goods to developing countries have crowded out local food production,” he pointed out.

In contrast, some developing countries, such as Brazil, have shown how to combat hunger successfully, Windfuhr said. “By financially supporting poor families engaged in small-sized agriculture, Brazil has been able since 2003 to help some 20 million people to escape from poverty,” he said.

But, from the climate change point of view, Brazil is also target of criticism for allowing the mass eroding of tropical forest in the Amazon region, for large agriculture purposes, especially for the breeding of cattle.

In its recent ‘Climate Change: Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation’ report, updated Nov. 6, the IFPRI also calls attention to the extreme vulnerability of agriculture to climate change.

“Higher temperatures eventually reduce yields of desirable crops while encouraging weed and pest proliferation,” Gerald Nelson, leading author of the report, told IPS. “Changes in precipitation patterns increase the likelihood of short-run crop failures and long-run production declines.”

IFPRI says that, “Although there will be gains in some crops in some regions of the world, the overall impacts of climate change on agriculture are expected to be negative, threatening global food security.”

In its report, IFPRI calls attention to local specificities of crop and livestock productivity, market access, and the effects of climate. It urges international development agencies and national governments “to ensure that technical, financial, and capacity-building support reaches local communities.”

Another IFPRI recommendation is to strengthen collection and dissemination of data. Regular, repeated observations of the surface of the earth via remote sensing are critical, George Nelson said.

“Funding for national statistical programs should be increased so that they can fulfil the task of monitoring global change,” the report points out. “Understanding agriculture/climate interactions well enough to support adaptation and mitigation activities based on land use requires major improvements in data collection, dissemination, and analysis.”

This is something the German Institute for Meteorology and Climate Research is already doing. Harald Kunstmann and his institute have modelled computer weather forecasts for Cameroon and neighbouring countries that take into consideration the changing rain patterns in the area.

These models are the basis for new yearly schedules for ploughing and sowing, which would heed the changing weather calendars, and adapt old agricultural traditions to global warming-induced erratic rain patterns.

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