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Will El Nino return this season?

An uncertain future awaits farmers this rain season, with early predictions that the dreaded El Nino phenomenon could return PIC: KENNEDY RAMOKONE
The 2014-2016 period will be remembered as being the years when the region endured the harshest El Niño effects, which caused the worst drought in Botswana in 35 years. Having barely recovered from that experience, some climate experts warn that the nightmare could recur this year. Mmegi Staff Writers, GOITSEMODIMO KAELO and MBONGENI MGUNI report

The years 2014 to 2016 will be remembered as being some of the driest on record, a period during which temperatures reached 46-year peaks and Gaborone Dam failed for the first time in its history, turning the capital into a treasure hunt for water, as residents spent most of their time laden with containers, in search of the liquid gold. Farmers, especially in the South, were not spared as they watched in disbelief as their crops wilted in heatwave after heatwave.Former president Ian Khama, in his then capacity as Southern African Development Community (SADC) chair, issued a P26 billion regional appeal for humanitarian aid, the first in 14 years, as silos emptied, joining a conspiracy started on the fields. Behind this misery was El Niño, the weather cycle, defined by prolonged warming in Pacific Ocean surface temperatures.

The phenomenon produces increased thunderstorms in places such as South America and colder winters in Europe.

However, in southern Africa and Botswana in particular, El Niño brings dry rainy seasons, heatwaves, bushfires, crop failures, livestock deaths and drought.

It rattles food security and increases the weight on government’s social security schemes such as poverty alleviation, destitute programmes and Ipelegeng.

That nightmare scenario lingers as a possibility in the upcoming rainy season, as several forecasters – both regionally and internationally – have already noted tell tale signs of El Niño. Climatologists in the United States (US) say the signs have already triggered certain early warning indicators, being, in particular, rising sea surface temperatures. “Looking ahead, global models run by international climate forecasting institutions are predicting the occurrence of El Niño during the 2018-2019 season,” reads a SADC vulnerability assessment released recently.

“Considering the forecast of El Niño, intensified preparatory interventions (are needed) that mitigate the potential impacts of mid-season dry spells on crop production, especially in areas traditionally affected by El Niño.”

The Famine Early Warning System Network, a USAID creation, was even more blunt in a recent report for the period covering June 2018 to January 2019. Early international forecasts for Southern Africa have indicated that there are increased chances of El Niño induced below-average rainfall for the 2018-2019 rainfall season. This possibility is likely to affect agriculture activities in the coming season, including access to labour and wage rates,” read the agency’s report. Food security outcomes in the region, should El Niño hit, will be worsened by the cereal deficit for Botswana and other countries’ emerging from the 2017-2018 harvests.  The official forecast for the season will emerge at a meeting of the Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum due later this month, where all regional climatologists meet and hammer out the rainfall outlook.

Meanwhile, the traditional pre-cropping activities are starting across the country, as families prepare to clear their fields and prepare for the next cropping season.  Traditionally, the field preparation runs alongside government’s mobilisation of subsidised agricultural inputs under the ISPAAD programme.

Farmers then wait, looking to the sky for the first rains, which ‘green’ the fields and signal that ploughing and planting can begin. That may not go according to plan this year, if the early forecasts prove correct. A snap survey conducted by a Mmegi newscrew on Tuesday revealed that most farmers in subsistence farming areas such as Ga-Kgatla, GaModubu, Seokangwane and Mmankgodi are unaware of the early forecasts being made for this year’s rainy season. For many, news of El Niño’s possible return leaves them gutted, although there are a few who remain steadfastly optimistic. In these areas, the fields look abandoned, perhaps because farmers did not bother to plant in the past season due to an unexpectedly prolonged dry spell.

The fields, which were planted, are now left with dry reeds, presumably the remains of maize, millet, sorghum or other cereals. Prior to 2014, El Niño was a term mainly used by local climatologists, but now, on the fields, everyone knows exactly what it portends.  “Iyoo wee, re tlo lala re sule ke Leuba,” Dipene Basupang at Seokangwane lands, said.

Her reaction was like of many farmers who spoke to

the crew. Many were unaware of the possibility of El Niño and when briefed, many vowed that they would surrender their fates to God. Only He knows whether there’ll be rain or not.

“We have gone through this and have no control over it. However, we don’t expect a repeat of what happened three years ago, especially after the late heavy rains we received this year. We were expecting a better year of good harvest,” Basupang said.

She said that the dependency of crop production, or agriculture in general, on rainfall has always been a challenge, but they have survived many difficult situations. She said this will not be the first occurrence and may not be the last, but farmers have to soldier on and adapt. “We hope that our God will save us from that occurrence. We know how devastating it is and we pray to God that He brings rain. It is difficult to prepare because we have no choice but to plough because this has been our source of livelihood for many years.”Basupang added that while climate change was to blame for the troubles agriculture is experiencing, ISPAAD and its implementation also worsen matters.

“Tractor owners are our biggest let down under this ISPAAD. We are advised to utilise the little moisture that we get but they will disappoint you at the last minute. “It has been ongoing but nothing is changing. Things will be even more difficult with the expected heat conditions.” For Rosinah Rathari of Mmasebele and Ga-Kgatla in Kweneng, the occurrence of El Niño will destroy her plans for the upcoming ploughing season.

“Because of many factors, I didn’t have a good harvest last season. I usually plough millet, maize and sorghum, but I couldn’t because the rains came very late and there were also issues with the tractor owners. I have the seeds in the house now which I plan to use in the next season but if you tell me that there will be El Niño, then I don’t know what I will do.” Rathari has been a farmer for many years since her husband passed on. For her, farming has not been easy because of changing weather patterns, but giving up is not an option.

“I didn’t get anything in the 2015-2016 season, but I wasn’t discouraged. It got better during 2016-2017.

“However, last season I harvested nothing because it rained very late. I had planted beans, manoko (groundnuts), ditloo (Jogo beans) and lab lab.

“Our government will have to assist us if there’s no rainfall this season, because we survive through the food from this field,” she said, pointing to her five-hectare field.  According to Rathari, people in the area are generally losing interest in farming because of the successive harsh season after another. 

She said away from the fields, the livestock would also suffer from any El Niño due to a drop in available pasture and water. Odirile Keipeile of Mmankgodi has not ploughed his field in the past five years. Ironically, he had planned to plant this year.

“I actually abandoned farming because of bad weather conditions, but I wanted to plough this year because I could not get a formal job,” he said.  “As you can see, I am busy trying to bring this place back to life because I intend to plough this season.  “I have not heard anything relating to the predicted weather conditions, but if there will be too much heat, one will have to plant crops that are resistant to the heat. 

“It is, however, discouraging to hear such news, especially because I am trying to get back into farming. But our fate is with God and He is the only one who can change it.” Keipeile said only commercial farmers could survive El Nino conditions as they had the option of irrigation.

As the Mmegi newscrew made its way out of the fields, the enduring memory was one of farmers forcing smiles on their faces as they contemplated the possible recurrence of a nightmare.


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