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Kenyan farmers brace for the worst as rains stop mid season

By George Mbakahya | June 19th 2016
In most farms across the country, the rains stopped midway and now the crops have wilted. [PHOTO: KIPSANG JOSEPH/STANDARD]

Climate change is increasingly visible in Kenya and it plays a huge role in agriculture as it threatens production. Smallholder farmers depend on natural resources like rain, sunlight and soil for their production activities. These resources are adversely affected by climate change as indicated by the changing seasonal weather patterns and occurrences of extreme weather events. The normal bi-annual rainfall pattern is under siege thus disrupting farming plans and cropping calendars.

The country is confronted with a range of climatic risks that have far-reaching consequences for its agricultural systems. Rapid and uncertain changes in rainfall and temperature patterns markedly threaten food production, this will lead to food price shocks, increase vulnerability of small holders, and accentuate rural poverty.

Where climate change is most obvious, and extremely concerning for farmers, is the rain cycles which have become so erratic that farmers don’t know when to plant anymore. This year, we had no rain for four months from January to April. This is highly unusual, as this used to be known as the rainy season in Kenya. On the other extreme end, some regions have been experiencing highly unusual periods of frost and heavy hail.

Erratic rains

Based on this year’s climate, we’ve known for some time already that 2016 is going to be a disastrous year for yields. As I write this article maize farmers are up in arms as rains have failed at a critical stage of the growing period as a result crop has wilted leaving farmers’ hopeless and counting huge losses. Farmers have reported that the crop have wilted.

A decline in precipitation is the current day phenomenon. Rainfall is the most important climatic factor critical for the survival of crops growth and livestock herds. A period of low rainfall means a period of scarcity of feeds and water, and increased walking distance for pastoralists.

If you think the prolonged dry spell is the only worry for farmers, then wait until you hear how difficult the erratic rainfall can be to farmers. The rains come with floods and sweep all the fertile top soil downstream leaving the ground bare. With the depleted soils, it is difficult to grow and produce healthy crops. Flooding is another disaster associated with these erratic rains. Floods come with all sorts of heath-related problems besides suffocating the crops. It is during this period when malaria and cholera cases increase.

Temperatures have also been rising. Evidence of progressive warming is obvious across the country and continent. As temperatures rise, rainfall patterns change and variability increases, farmers need to grow different times, grow different crops, use different inputs, raise different animals and be ready for ongoing changes.

As a result of these changes, farmers would see lower crop yields. Maize, wheat and sorghum are all sensitive to high temperatures. Increase in aridity would see farmers lose part of their crop lands used to grow maize, millet and sorghum. Less food would be available to eat and malnutrition would increase.

Adaptation strategies

These effects of climate change add to the challenges facing Kenyan farmers in producing enough food for the country’s growing population. The change is making worse the already tight resource constraints facing smallholders, and more erratic weather patterns and extreme weather events are decreasing average yields.

Sometimes natural calamities like prolonged droughts affecting food security, have forced the government to respond in an emergency manner and allocate funds for climate change adaptation, though this is for short term adaptation measures mostly.

These changing weather patterns greatly influence decision making at farm level. Just some of the decisions affected include crop / and or variety selection, timing of planting, timing of input application, harvesting stages, among others. In extreme cases some have had to make the decision of engaging in other income generating activities other than agriculture.

The good news is that there are interventions applicable to our farming systems that would simultaneously increase yields, increase resilience to climate change, reduce green house gas emissions and increase the stock of carbon in the soil. Climate smart agriculture is an approach for addressing food security challenges under the new realities of climate change.

Research has identified synergies and trade-offs among food security, adaptation and mitigation as a basis for reorienting agricultural policies and practices in response to climate change. Examples include, improving efficiency of water use and nutrient use, use if diverse varieties and breeds, integrated pest management, integrated crop, livestock management system, Improved grassland management.

Adaptation strategies being promoted here include by development patterns and non-governmental organisations are; conservation agriculture; promotion of drought tolerant crops; water harvesting using small and medium size dams; management of livestock diseases; crop and forage production; as well as institutionalisation of early warning systems and early response mechanisms. With climate smart technologies, the threats of climate change to agriculture can be reduced by increasing the adaptive capacity of farmers, increasing resilience and resource use efficiency and enhancing the mitigation potential of agricultural landscapes.

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