In DepthSoapboxAs Climate Change bites the dust, West Africa seeks solutions

Fri,17Nov2017

Posted on Tuesday, 14 January 2014 17:29

As Climate Change bites the dust, West Africa seeks solutions

By Robert Zougmoré

West African nations are turning elsewhere—bilateral funds, public-private partnerships, and international institutions like the World Bank—to fund its climate adaptation plan. Photo©ReutersThe weather in many parts of West Africa has a special element of capriciousness—strong sun followed by hard rains and sometimes fierce storms, followed by more strong sun.

Droughts are commonplace, and afterwards the soil is baked solid, impervious to rain and seeds alike.

As difficult as farming has been, lately it has been getting worse. Longer dry seasons. Stronger rainstorms. We have tolerated the weather for generations, but the change is becoming too drastic as our climate shifts.

Those of us watching saw irony in how industrialized countries competed to outdo each other in providing funds and humanitarian aid

As for today, farmers have no idea whether 2014 will bring another crisis like the dry spell of 2012, or whether the slightly more moderate weather of 2013 will continue.

West Africa does not hold the monopoly on unpredictable weather. We see it everywhere.

From cyclones and typhoons in the Pacific, polar ice melting, hurricanes in the Atlantic, drought and tornadoes in the U.S.—almost everyone, it seems, has to adapt. But West Africa, especially the Sahel, is known as one of the climate hotspots worldwide and merits special mention.

Delegates from all over the world gathered for two weeks in Warsaw towards the end of 2013 to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that climate change will not be so severe.

They have been negotiating a global agreement for years now, one that would limit the environmental impacts that humans induce, and to determine what if anything can be done to help impoverished regions adapt to the new climates.

The negotiators failed once again; the answer from Warsaw seems to be that nothing immediate can be done.

While a vague agreement on the parameters for the next round of negotiations was reached, there was no real progress achieved on climate change adaptation despite an obvious and ever-increasing need. And in agriculture, we saw no movement at all.

200 million trees

But fortunately in Niger, the farmers and policymakers are not sitting idly and waiting for global consensus. They, and many other developing countries who will be most impacted by the effects of climate change—especially on farming—are making impressive changes to prepare for an uncertain future.

Nigeriens, for example, have been adapting by regrowing trees whose stumps lay dormant in the soil—trees that had been previously cleared for farmland. This process is known as farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR).

Adding trees alongside the crops provides shelter from the elements, augments the amount of organic matter and nitrogen in the soil, adds fruit and firewood to a farmer's yields, and even raises groundwater levels.

The technique has spread by word of mouth throughout the country over the past three decades, and analysts estimate that farmers in Niger have grown 200 million trees and rehabilitated five million hectares of degraded land.

Farmers in Niger are also working to harvest the rainfall that reaches their land.

Small stone walls 20 to 30cm tall—known as bunds—helps slow down the runoff from farm fields so that the sun-hardened ground can absorb more. The bunds also prevent soil and silt from washing away.

Zai pits—shallow bowls dug into the ground and filled with compost or manure—also help capture the rain and channel it into the soil.

As effective as these additions to the agricultural landscape have been, more is needed. But here too, Niger has not sat idle.

The government has prepared a National Adaptation Plan of Action, a strategy document that looks at how agriculture can adapt to expected climate change impacts.

Concrete initiatives that are being implemented include broadcasting weather data and forecasts more widely, establishing food banks to help both people and livestock survive through lean times, and promoting livestock and crops that are better adapted to the expected macroclimate.

In 2006, Niger was one of the first countries in West Africa to produce an adaptation plan; now almost all West African countries and many others around the world have prepared their own strategies.

Planning for climate change is only the first step in adapting, of course. Many developing countries need funds so that these strategies can be implemented.

Humanitarian aid competition

And that brings us back to the climate change talks. The failure of the Warsaw negotiations was apparent almost as soon as it started, despite a tearful plea by a delegate from the Philippines after the latest superstorm cut a swathe of near-total destruction through his country.

Those of us watching saw irony in how industrialized countries competed to outdo each other in providing funds and humanitarian aid to the Philippines.

The same countries in Warsaw ignored the pleas of the Philippine delegation to take action on emissions and adaptation funding. It was as if the climate change negotiations had nothing to do with the unruly climate in the Pacific.

Niger's government, like those of other West African nations, is turning elsewhere—bilateral funds, public-private partnerships, and international institutions like the World Bank—to fund its climate adaptation plan.

And by partnering with initiatives like the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), the government aims to grow participation in community-based climate-smart agriculture efforts.

But while these initiatives lay the critical foundation for climate-change adaptation, what's missing is the global political push that can kickstart large-scale research and investment, especially in the agriculture sector.

The lack of progress at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the official name for these endless negotiations—is the one part of global warming that has remained static, as negotiators have not moved from positions that are literally decades old.

It is now 2014, a new year and past time for everyone to put aside self-interest.

The weather is changing and it will only get worse, therefore let us all also change our respective behaviors!

Robert Zougmoré is the West Africa Program Leader for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). He is based at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Bamako, Mali.



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