USC West Africa’s experiences in adapting to climate change

October 18th, 2008

by Modibo Goita October 10, 2008


Acacia albida trees in conservation (by USC)

Acacia albida trees in conservation (by USC)

Climate change is an emerging challenge linked to the internal variability of the climatic system and external natural factors but more to human activities. Farmers have realized as the years of dryness pass that this is a persistant phenomenon. They have thus developed since the 1970s strategies to fight, well before the politics of international development have focused on Mali more recently.

The fight against this plague necessitates actions at an appropriate scale both at a local and global level. This document studies observed changes in the evolution of the climate; farmer’s adaptation strategies have gone alongside program activities by USC – West Africa.

Change and/or climatic variability observed

The rainfall regime is very affected by the variability in climatic changes. We note:

  • A regular decrease in the quantity of rainfall and a great spatio-temporal variation (from 600 to 400 mm)
  • An increase in temperatures with the highs exceeding 45°C where the lows are rarely below 10°C
  • Strong evapotranspiration potential because of the high temperatures, relatively low humidity and strong winds
  • An important Rainfall deficit and an evolution of humidity towards the south
  • The persistence of dryness since the 1970s, a time since which the farmers have talked about climate change before it became a preoccupation in political discourse.
  • Strong winds and abundant rains can be catastrophic (flooding of the village of Petaka in 2003)
  • Average annual rainfall very variable from one year to the other (very often too low, sometimes normal or too much. These inter-year variations are arriving on top of a general trend towards reduced rainfall).
  • The analysis of the maximium average annual temperaturefrom 1951-1970 was 35°C and between 1971-2000 35,9°C demonstrating an augmentation of 0.9 degrees celsuis
  • The temperature increase will be more than 2°C in much of the countryside in coming years.
  • The natural vegetation formations have suffered profound changes owing largely to the aridity of the climate, successfive droughts and above all because of anthropomorphic changes (agricultural activities, abusive cuts in forests for the needs of the towns of Mopti and Gao), overgrazing, and cutting of wood. The death of the feet of wild baobob trees also has to pointed out, and much less productive tamarind plants
  • Lowered level of the water table
  • Decrease in the extent of pasture areas from frequent land disputes between farmers and livestock herders and between herders.
  • Fragilization of ecosystems and acceleration of their rhythm of degradation of resources, modification of the vegetative cover.
  • Disappearance of certain plant and animal species
  • Change/reinforcement of activities of certain socio-professional groups (the pastoralist has become farmer or agro-pastoralist, the farmer practices livestock breeding for a complementary strategy and to enhance food security).

A. Farmers’ Strategies to adapt to climate change in Douentza

  1. Reference to certain markets that are well-adapted notwithstanding climate changes
  2. The arrival of the stork bird indicates the beginning of the rainy season
  3. The flowering of the mango tree on the East side precedes a good season of rains.
  4. Dry seeding so as to not be surprised by the rains and maximise the chances of success in the agricultural year.
  5. Mix of varieties in the same field increases the elasticity of the crop and reduces the risks with a view to being able to harvest no matter what the rainfall situation is.
  6. Use of inter and intraspecific diversity as a strategy: which is an ongoing part of life in the Sahel, where unpredictable conditions are the norm
  7. Taking into account the topographic sequence and knowledge of the needs of species and different cultivated agricultural varieties: Topographical sequence in terms of slope of different plots of land result in differences in terms of quantity of the water that infiltrates, the vulnerability to erosion, differences in evapotranspiration, and lateral percolation on water-crusted soils. Farmers know the varieties in terms of needs of water, soil etc. and put the varieties that are the least demanding on the high ground and those that are more needy of water lower down.
  8. Spatial distribution of fields and temporal separation of seedling plantings: farmers in the Douentza region do everything to take advantage of different fields arranged according to different cardinal points so that if it rains on one cardinal point, their field in that region will be watered. They give also time to plant varieties and species according to their priorities and the cycle of those varieties. Knowing also that all the local varieties are photosensitive, this also permits them to play with the date of planting.
  9. Investment of a part of the harvest in the purchase of animals: since the animals are like their bank, this permits them to resell the animals in difficult periods to buy cereals
  10. Diversification of activities: All farmers that can, do diversify their activities since depending on one activity in this region makes them vulnerable. Occupations in agriculture, livestock, small business are also options. Out-migration to other areas or to cities is also done.
  11. Bi-modal management: this permits Douentza farmers according to whom the season will begin early or late to take appropriate seeds (short or medium cycle) who according to their experience can achieve complete maturity. The varieties at long cycle are not used if the beginning of the season of rains is late. The topographical sequence factor is also integrated into their choice of varieties.
  12. Picking of wild food puts complementary foods at their disposal, like the fruits of the Senegalese Boscia which are perceived as a resource that is an alternative to cereal shortages in the inter-harvest period. To this category must be added the leaves of the Moringa or Neverdier, Leptadenia hastate, Cassia tora etc.
  13. Farmers’ preference for clay soils and lowlands which are the most appropriate in this situation of water deficit.
  14. Changing the species cultivated: Millet instead of sorghum if you do not have low-lands or clay lands particularly since the water needs of millet are less than that of sorghum.
  15. Research for a greater diversity of varieties that are quick-growing
  16. Agroforestry practices permit farmers to benefit from the advantages of trees but also enables cultivated plants to benefit from the advantage of association with legumes that fix nitrogen (with 60 stands of Acacia albida per hectare the productivity of millet can multiply by 2.6 times)
  17. Conservation of water and soils permit the maintenance or improvement of the productivity of the earth
Awa, the winner of a prize at a biodiversity fair, with her award-winning collection of diversity

Awa, the winner of a prize at a biodiversity fair, with her award-winning collection of diversity (by USC)

B. Reinforcement of farmer strategies for the adaptation to climate change

  • Putting in place a system of seed supply
  • Promote the sustainable use of farmers’ varieties. Farmers’ varieties have been developed and maintained by farmers through the years and adapted to socio-economic and environmental conditions of the communities and their knowledge accumulates and is transmitted from generation to generation. These varieties constitute an important heritage for saving.
  1. Seed supply system
    a) the development of community infrastructure: community gene banks/living collections promote diversity and make available to farmers the greatest range of varieties to enable them to maintain this diversity and safeguard family varieties. They constitute one of the alternatives to climate change since they put at the disposition of communities in one place the existing agrobiodiversity with a view to permitting communities to have at their disposal a range of important resources that constitute the premier material that constitute the first link in the production chain: the seeds with the package of genes and knowledge adapted and accumulated over the generations. This element brings materials for secure production through adapting this accumulated knowledge to the toposequence and water needs of plants.
    Community seed banks: these constitute an infrastructure of crucial important in terms of materials of production and conservation of seeds capable of satisfying the needs of the populations in the case of a rainfall deficit, or a grasshopper attack, where the populations couldn’t protect their collections in their fields. The community seed bank resolves the problem of availability of seeds and it constitutes a reliable source of diverse seeds known separately from the classic market. Also for the reason of volunteer plants, the CSB can oppose the insufficiency of seeds (major and minor cultures) while reinforcing the solidarity between villages.
    Cereal banks: the Sahel constitutes an erratic zone where the abundance of periods of harvest contrast with the interharvest period. Cereal banks reinforce the capacities of management by mobilizing community resources that constitute a response that is well adapted to the needs of the communities.
    b) exchanges
    Seed fair: this constitutes an appropriate means to evaluate the existing diversity in the hands of farmers while supporting the exchange of experiences, knowledge and varieties. The fair is an effective means to identify the guardians of diversity.
    The stock exchange of seeds: organized generally in the pre-winter period, the exchange permits sellers and buyers of farmers’ seeds to find themselves in the same space. It permits farmers in search of rare seeds to find them. It constitutes an alternative solution to the needs of farmers seeds at an opportune moment, all while supporting the exchange of knowledge of seeds. It is a supplementary means to diffuse diversity.
    The field of diversity: this approach constitutes a mechanism, in the framework of cooperation and exchange that permit the creation of a synergy between different stakeholders (researchers, developers, farmers), while developing the confidence in the collaboration and maintence between different actors. This forum sthares knowledge and is a significant part of the comprehension of certain scientific concepts by the farmers, but above all else is an opportunity to record the savoir-faire of these farmers and reinforce their capacity for organization of farmers’ groups. It enables them to evaluate different varieties that have been followed through the cycle to enable an evaluation of their performance vis a vis certain objectives, and to choose varieties for the future that produce according to the priority needs of the farmers.
  2. The school arboreteum. This is a teaching method that concretely allows a student to study environmental education while practicing. With the scientific knowledge that the student acquires, it has to be combined with local knowledge held by older people in the village. This permits an intergenerational dialogue and the training of a new type of citizen that respects their environment. It constitutes a way to train citizens of the sahel to respect their environment.
  3. Environmental demonstration plot: this sensitizes communities to their negative impact on the environment and permits them to perceive the tendency of the environment to suffer the pressures of human and animal activities.
  4. Market gardens
  5. Reforestation: this is a strategy of adaption and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the sequestration of carbon

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