Mmegi Online :: As El Nino returns, farmers look to a higher power
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Last Updated
Friday 20 September 2019, 16:30 pm.
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As El Nino returns, farmers look to a higher power

With the memories of the disastrous 2015/16 season fresh in their minds, farmers around the country had their worst fears confirmed recently with the announcement that El Nino is returning this year. As science 'fails' them, the farmers are placing their hope in a higher power. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
By Mbongeni Mguni Fri 14 Sep 2018, 13:25 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: As El Nino returns, farmers look to a higher power








“We still trust in the living God. We alone cannot change the situation and while we will listen to the experts, we trust in You.”

The farmer prays to mark the opening of a meeting to announce the 2018/19 rainfall forecast. Around the room, even before Meteorological Services Department experts read out the forecast, there’s a heavy sense of foreboding.

Each year since the 2015/16 drought dried up Gaborone Dam, raised temperatures to a 46-year high and decimated agricultural production, the annual announcement of the rainfall forecast has become an ominous affair.

El Nino, the cyclical climate phenomenon that in the SADC region causes heatwaves and extreme droughts, is the bane of local farmers. In years past, the phenomenon used to occur roughly once every seven years, but in the last two decades, it has become a more frequent, unwanted visitor, due to the effects of climate change.

As they sit in muted suspense, farmers at the rainfall outlook announcement look for the telltale signs of a bad season from the Met Services Dept. Over the years at each announcement, the Met Services and farmers have developed a code communicating these telltale signs, as a way of softening the inevitable blow. The code involves using certain words and expressions in the preamble to the actual announcement, in order to ease farmers into the announcement.

“Climate change is a priority for this country and we are aligning ourselves to that as well,” acting Met Services director, Radithupa Radithupa says, as nervous glances are exchanged around the room.

“What are we doing as a response to disaster risk management?

“One initiative is an effective early warning system. One of the impacts of climate change is a high frequency of droughts, heatwaves and flooding in other areas. “We have to build resilience in our communities and early warning is part of that package.

“We need to improve. Right now our forecast is based on statistical models, but in the next two years, we will upgrade to dynamical analysis which will allow us to forecast the onset of rains.”

The code is clear and the stage has been set for principal meteorologist, John Stegling, who has been assigned to deliver the forecast.

“We don’t expect this El Nino to be as strong as it was in 2015/16, but it will be an undeniably strong one,” he explains.

“Going into the rainfall season, there is a 60% chance of El Nino between September to November, rising to 70% during the peak season from December, January and after.” Looking into the details of the Department’s forecast for this season, there is every reason for farmers to tremble. Most of the country for the entire season, meaning between October and March, will generally receive below normal to normal rainfall. In the key second half of the season, between January and March, most areas will receive normal to below normal.

Temperatures during that period will trend towards above normal, with sporadic peaks expected. Essentially, a hot, dry summer is forecast.

“We expect a dry season and we expect higher than normal temperatures. This summer will be hot to very hot,” says Stegling, triggering murmurs of concern around the room. When the numbers are laid bare, the threat facing farmers, the rural economy and hundreds of thousands of households, is evident.

Technically, below normal rainfall may mean a mere difference of 20 millimetres of rain when end of season amounts are tallied. The issue for farmers is the distribution of rainfall in both space and time or where rainfall occurs and when specifically.

This is what wrecked the last season, collapsed yields and forced government to look for nearly P900 million in drought relief. While the rainfall tally at the end of the season was adequate, the actual rains came very late in the season and were sporadically distributed within districts. Farmers who had tilled their fields, secured seeds and chemicals, watched their plantings wilt due to an unexpected mid-season dry spell, while those who waited and planted later, also saw their fields suffer frost from the onset of winter in late April. This season the threats are conflated and include the now

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common mid-season dry spell, heatwaves and lower rainfall. For farmers, El Nino plays havoc with their planning, their livelihoods, their finances, their savings. For government, El Nino means hundreds of millions of pula in supporting the rural economy, vulnerable and underprivileged groups, greater spending on cereal imports and the waste of other hundreds of millions spent on agricultural input programmes such as ISPAAD.

In fact, the only winners in the change in climate is the health sector for whom drier rain seasons and the shift of rains closer to winter, mean less waterborne disease outbreaks during summer.

Radithupa breaks the stupor of bewilderment around the room. Despite the code, news that El Nino is back barely two years after it was last here, is hard for many to swallow.

“All is not lost. In 1997, we had the worst El Nino and if you remember, there were adverts to say people should sell their cattle. “It was extensive but the impact was not so bad; we survived it.

“When we say El Nino, don’t think everything is over.

“There will still be rain, but the issue is distribution; if it comes at the right time, it’s still fine.

“As Batswana, we have learnt to adapt and this is an issue of risk management.”

Ministry of Agriculture agronomist, Lekgatlhanye Kanelo adds more words of encouragement.

“The forecast is a bit scary but I would encourage farmers to understand the crops they are planting. Some farmers plant long maturing varieties late in the season and these don’t mature.

“Right now, we must be looking at which crops are best at which time.

“The mid-season dry spell is becoming more common and we have to come up with plants that can bounce back like sorghum and millet. Maize cannot bounce back.

“Understand your crops and exactly where they fit in the season.

“We conduct drought assessments each year and we have found that many cases of crop failure are because people plant without seeing the forecasts or the time when they should plant those crops.”

Experts from the Famine Early Warning System, a USAID agency, are advising local farmers to stagger the planting of crops in order to negotiate mid-season dry spells and the increasing tendency of rains to arrive in February and beyond. Radithupa says local farmers used to practise staggering in times past, planting a few lines during the traditional kick off in November, then others in January. “Our research has shown that we are going to keep getting dry spells in January and with climate change, we are going to get more of these.” More advice for the shell-shocked farmers, this time from the director of agricultural research in the ministry.

“For more than five years, we have been trying to reduce the amount of maize seed going to farmers by all means, but people are refusing to leave maize,” he says.

“When you reduce the amounts, they buy for themselves and the results are what we are seeing. “Maize really grows in wet countries. There will be a time when we have to plant more of things we are not used to like millet, which is drought resistant.

“Let’s take this into our culture. We have to move away from the traditional norm and go elsewhere.  “The varieties coming from research are drought tolerant and we have tested them in our own hard conditions; they have performed well.” In the abundance of scientific forecasts and advice, the farmers retreat to the familiar; appeals to God.

Farmers are famous for their stubborn hope. Even in a semi-arid country, they clear their fields every September/October and wait. They innately believe and while Radithupa and other scientists have their opinions, God who provides the rains has the final say.

“It’s painful, a painful education,” says Matthews Olefile Ikgopoleng, a Barolong Farms-based farmer.

“It’s good to know now and we must plan which crops to plant.

“But God is in control. He is the One who knows.

“Modimo o teng.”

As they leave the meeting, the farmers are resolute. There’s no question of not planting. The issue is to plant and have faith.

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