Climate Change Is Water Change

By Emily Alpert

In case you missed it, World Water Week took place in Stockholm, Sweden from August 23-28th. This year’s theme, ‘water for development,’ could not come at a more critical time for addressing climate change.  Even the Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), Torgny Holmgren, was quoted as saying “water is what binds together all aspects of climate change. Climate change is water change.”

Children carry water in Mali.

Children carry water in Mali.

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is the increasing demands for food and the water needed to produce that food, especially under climate change. Mean temperatures in Africa will rise faster than the global average and are likely to exceed 2°C – the threshold for dangerous climate change. Amongst other impacts, higher temperatures will result in droughts, flooding and erratic rainfall patterns. This spells too much or too little water for most people, crops and animals. Whether drought or flood, it is a threat to food and nutrition security across the continent.

People digging an artificial pond to alleviate drought in Ethiopia. Photo credit@ UNDP Ethiopia

Digging an artificial pond to alleviate drought in Ethiopia. Photo credit: UNDP Ethiopia

While there is a lot of confidence in the predictions about future temperature increases in Africa, the impacts of climate change on rainfall are less certain. According to the IPCC, it is likely that precipitation will decline across Northern Africa and parts of south-west South Africa by the end of the 21st century, but trends elsewhere are still unclear. But as many parts of Africa are already water-stressed, climate change is only set to exacerbate the problem.

Temperature, weather and water changes will reduce yields, the nutritional quality of crops and livestock. By 2050, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that rice, wheat and maize – important food security crops – will shrink by 14%, 22% and 5% respectively. Yields for other major staple crops such as sorghum and millet could actually decline by as much as 40%.

A community-built irrigation site in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo credit Kelly Ramundo, USAID

A community-built irrigation site in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Kelly Ramundo, USAID

To hopefully side-step some of these pitfalls, smallholder farmers need to be supported to better manage their lands, water and take on additional investments such as insurance. Where there is still adequate water available, this water needs to be harvested for crop growth such as by extracting ground water with boreholes, but irrigation also needs to be increased sustainably. Currently just 6% of Africa’s arable lands are irrigated – well below the global average.

Though, an estimated 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (18% of the population) face serious water shortages. For these farmers, finding ways of saving water or using ‘less crop per drop’ will need to become the mainstay of agricultural production. Suitable water conservation methods minimise negative environmental impacts of drought such as soil erosion and desertification and can increase the volume of water available, bridging seasonal rainfall variability.

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer, digs planting pits to restore degraded land. Photo credit: Chris Reij, WRI

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer, digs planting pits to restore degraded land. Photo credit: Chris Reij, WRI

For example, strategies to conserve water can range from constructing earth basins, digging planting pits or using drip irrigation. Although drip irrigation can be a more costly method than digging Zai planting pits, drip irrigation can reduce labour hours and water is also saved, in some cases 25% less is used compared to hand-watering. Bucket drip kits, such as those sold by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, help deliver water to crops effectively. Farmers who have used the drip kits reported increased yields and profits between $400 and $600 per season with the larger one-eighth of an acre kit.

Cows walk along an irrigation canal in Niolo, Mali. Photo credit: Stevie Mann,  ILRI.

Cows walk along an irrigation canal in Niolo, Mali. Photo credit: Stevie Mann, ILRI.

When it comes to dealing with water shortages that affect livestock – limited drinking water, forage loss due to drought – indexed-based micro-insurance is showing promising results, especially with the introduction of advanced information communication technologies (ICT).  With the use of satellite imagery to measure forage or vegetation cover, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) now offers index-based livestock insurance to pastoralists. The index presumes that low levels of vegetation will correspond to high levels of livestock mortality. Available in several regions of northern Kenya and in the Borana region of southern Ethiopia, uptake has been significant – more than 40% of sampled households purchased a policy at least once. Further, during the Horn of Africa food crisis in 2011, insured households were 36% less likely to resort to distress sales of livestock and 25% less likely to reduce meals to cope with the drought.

As agricultural livelihoods come under even more threat from climate change and water stress, finding ways of sustainably supporting them to improve their farming practices and invest more in their farming futures is no easy task. As global leaders gather this month to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals and meet in Paris in December to agree to a new deal on climate change, hopefully the message ‘climate change is water change’ will ring loud and clear.


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