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CLIMATE CHANGE: A Threat to Food Security in Africa’s River Basins

Busani Bafana

PRETORIA, South Africa, Nov 15 2011 (IPS) - While Africa has successfully avoided conflict over shared water courses, it will need greater diplomacy to keep the peace as new research warns that climate change will have an effect on food productivity.

Climate change will increase water pressure on the stressed Limpopo, Nile and Volta River Basins on which more than 300 million people depend. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Climate change will increase water pressure on the stressed Limpopo, Nile and Volta River Basins on which more than 300 million people depend. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

“Climate change introduces a new element of uncertainty precisely when governments and donors are starting to have more open discussions about sharing water resources and to consider long-term investments in boosting food production,” Alain Vidal, director of the CGIAR’s Challenge Programme on Water and Food (CPWF) told more than 300 delegates attending the Third International Forum on Water and Food being held in Pretoria, South Africa from Nov. 11 to 18. GCIAR unites agricultural research organisations with the donors.

“To prevent this uncertainty from undermining key agreements and commitments, researchers must build a reliable basis for decisions, which takes into account the variable impacts of climate change on river basins.”

Scientists at the global water forum added that climate change will increase water pressure on the already stressed Limpopo, Nile and Volta River Basins on which more than 300 million people depend.

Vidal said new insights on the effect of climate change on river basins calls for a rethink on assumptions about water availability. However, investment in research to support far-sighted water policies will give decision makers the information they need to address challenges introduced by climate change that could otherwise impede agreements and investments in food security, he said.

As part of a five-year global research project scientists from more than eight major research institutions around the world examined the potential effect higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, caused by climate change, had on river basins around the world in 2050. CPWF scientists say some unsettling scenarios have emerged for parts of Africa, particularly in the Limpopo Basin, in Southern Africa, which is home to 14 million people.

Using data averages from climate models by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CPWF scientists found that rising temperatures and declining rainfall in the Limpopo Basin over the next few decades would affect the already marginal environment, depressing food production while intensifying poverty.

“We need to ask whether current agriculture development strategies in the Limpopo Basin, which are predicated on current levels of water availability, are in fact realistic for a climate future that may present new challenges and different opportunities,” said Simon Cook, a scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and head of CPWF’s Basin Focal Projects.

“In some parts of the Limpopo Basin even widespread adoption of innovations like drip irrigation may not be enough to overcome the negative effects of climate change on water availability,” Cook added. “But in other parts, investments in rain-fed agriculture such as rainwater harvesting, zai pits (deep planting pits) and small reservoirs might be better placed.”

The key, said Cook, was data for informed decision making.

Rainwater management is viewed in Africa as the key to improving both crop and livestock farming. Innovative ways to make productive use of rainwater are also being touted as a new “climate smart” approach to agriculture. For example, small reservoirs can be used to store water during dry periods or to help control flooding.

“These decentralised approaches to farming with rainwater are inexpensive, highly adaptable and provide immediate options for farmers to be their own water managers,” said Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network.

“Enhancing farmer’s adaptive capacity to respond to current challenges is smart even without climate change, but it is an absolute imperative now that we see what the future hold,” she added.

The CPWF research has highlighted the important role of effective water management to ensure food production stays abreast of population growth, even in times of climate uncertainty.

Experts are arguing that the strong link between climate change and food security should give agriculture a boost in the global climate talks at the forthcoming 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in Durban, South Africa.

“But water for food and agriculture and the impact of climate change on global food security is barely a blip on the radar for the negotiators meeting in Durban later this month,” added Sibanda.

She said that the first step towards climate security was ensuring farmers and the world’s poor would be able to feed themselves under rapid environmental change that puts the local and global food system at risk.

Findings to be presented at the global forum indicate that climate change could also introduce uncertainties into the water politics of the Nile Basin. The CPWF analysis shows that higher temperatures — temperatures are expected to rise by two to five degrees Celsius by 2050 — could result in increased water evaporation and could “reduce the water balance of the upper Blue Nile Basin.”

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