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CLIMATE CHANGE: African Agriculture and Food Supply at Risk

Julio Godoy

BONN, Jun 18 2011 (IPS) - Climate change and global warming are likely to have dramatically negative effects on African agriculture and food supply by reducing river runoffs and water recharge, especially in semi-arid zones such as Southern Africa, two new reports say.

Polly Ericksen: Areas hit hardest by climate change are areas where farmers are already struggling due to new weather patterns. Credit: Anita Ghosh/ILRI

Polly Ericksen: Areas hit hardest by climate change are areas where farmers are already struggling due to new weather patterns. Credit: Anita Ghosh/ILRI

Both studies were released while thousands of delegates from around the world gathered during Jun. 6- 17 in the German city of Bonn to take part in the new United Nations (UN) Climate Change conference. New research supports the need for a revamped international regime of reduction of greenhouse gases emissions, the main cause of global warming.

The first study, “Climate change, water, and food security” by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) constitutes a comprehensive survey of existing scientific knowledge on the anticipated consequences of climate change for water use in agriculture.

In the study, the FAO warns that rising temperatures associated with global warming will accelerate the world’s hydrological cycle, increase the rate of evaporation from land and sea, and disturb the rainfall patterns across Africa and other parts of the world, aggravating erosion and desertification.

As a consequence of such sweeping transformations, the FAO adds that climate change “will significantly impact agriculture by increasing water demand, limiting crop productivity and reducing water availability in areas where irrigation is most needed”.

“Rainfall is predicted to rise in the tropics and higher latitudes, but decrease in the already dry semi- arid to arid mid-latitudes and in the interior of large continents”, such as Africa, the report says.

Furthermore, “water-scarce areas will generally become drier and hotter. Both rainfall and temperatures are predicted to become more variable, with a consequent higher incidence of droughts and floods, sometimes in the same place.”

The FAO report was authored by Hugh Turral, Jacob Burke, and Jean-Marc Faurès, all three experts in climate change, and land and water management sciences.

Burke told IPS that even small transformations of rainfall provoked by climate change could have large negative impacts. “Relatively small reductions in rainfall will translate into much larger reductions in runoff, for example, a five percent fall precipitation in Morocco will result in a 25 percent reduction in runoff,” he explains.

The talks in Bonn are in preparation of yet another climate change global summit in Durban, South Africa, in December.

Initially, it was expected that the Durban summit would ratify a new international regime on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries, and set up a financial plan to pay for climate change adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries.

This new regime is expected to come into force starting 2013, after the present Kyoto protocol measures expire 2012. But the talks in Bonn, the last round of negotiations before the summit of Durban, have not produced any significant advances.

The FAO report led food and agriculture experts attending the Bonn meeting to issue more urgent appeals to formulate and approve an ambitious new regime to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and forestall global warming.

Tim Gore, climate change expert at the nongovernmental humanitarian organisation Oxfam, told IPS that global warming could “devastate our future food supply. We need less talk and more action if a warming world is to feed itself”.

According to the FAO, the higher average global temperatures will lengthen the agricultural growing season in northern temperate zones. But at the same time, climate change will shorten the growing season almost everywhere else.

Coupled with increased rates of evapotranspiration, such changes in the growing season will cause the yield potential and water productivity of crops to decline, the FAO says.

The absolute amount of rainfall in Africa will decrease while its variability will increase. “In semi-arid areas where rainfall is already unreliable, this might have severe impacts on crop production and the economy. ”

Irrigation might help smooth out variability, but is only useful if the total amount of manageable precipitation remains sufficient to meet crop water demands.

“Both the livelihoods of rural communities as well as the food security of city populations are at risk,” Alexander Mueller, FAO assistant director general for natural resources, told IPS. “The rural poor, who are the most vulnerable, are likely to be disproportionately affected.”

The second study, by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in cooperation with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), comes to similar predictions, and warns that climate change is likely to cause widespread famines in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia by destroying the basis of local agriculture.

The report reiterates that food security outcomes differ according to socio-economic and gender characteristics, including wealth, age and status in the household. The latter is affected by whether you are a woman or a man.

“We are starting to see much more clearly where the effect of climate change on agriculture could intensify hunger and poverty”, in Africa and other parts of the developing word, Patti Kristjanson, a scientist at CGIAR’s research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security, said during the presentation of the study.

The report, “Mapping hotspots of climate change and food insecurity in the global tropics”, identified regions of intense climate change and agricultural vulnerability by examining a variety of climate models and indicators of food problems.

The authors then created a series of detailed maps of the tropical regions of the world, based on those data.

“‘When you put these maps together you immediately identify the regions around the world, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where the arrival of stressful growing conditions (due to climate change) could be especially disastrous,” Polly Ericksen, a senior scientist at ILRI, and the study’s lead author, said.

“These are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns,” Ericksen said.

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