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Is farming the way forward for dryland regions?

Dryland farming is increasingly unsustainable due to climate change
Farming productively in dryland regions is challenging. A harsh environment characterised by aridity, water scarcity, poor soil fertility and a highly variable climate all make for natural agro-constraints.

Combined with factors such as isolation, marginalisation and poverty – which are also largely characteristic of dryland ecosystems – there are generally few viable alternatives to agriculture-based livelihoods.

So, what do farmers do when drought or disease causes crops to fail and livestock to die? Or when floods wipe out entire fields, or the rain doesn’t come at the usual time of year? In Namibia, this depends on how resilient (read: rich) you are.

Most commercial farmers who own freehold land in the central and southern parts of the country engage in irrigated cropping and livestock ranching. These farmers generally have adequate capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances, given their access to insurance, knowledge and resources, contingency measures and collateral to secure loans (which gives them more room to take risks and to innovate). As such, their bank accounts (like their crops and their cows) may suffer for several seasons and consumers will have to pay higher prices for produce, the cumulative impacts of which could indeed be dire. However, the survival of these freehold farmers wouldn’t necessarily be dependent solely on the fruits and grains of this year’s harvest.

But what about those on the other side of the inequality scale? Many smallholder and subsistence farmers, such as those in the semi-arid, north-central region of Namibia, are predominantly reliant on rain-fed agriculture (although the livelihoods of some are also supplemented by other sources of income, such as off-farm manual labour, social grants from government and cash remittances sent from relatives in urban areas). For these rural farming communities, climate-related impacts can be a huge shock to their livelihood system and, as such, to their health and wellbeing. Such impacts are already being experienced in the form of, for example, below-average crop yields and rising heat stress amongst livestock. And if these challenges already exist, then what does this say about the future of farming in drylands under climate change scenarios?

Drylands are considered ‘hotspots’ of climate change, meaning that they are warming and drying faster than any other region on the planet. Unfortunately, the agricultural sector is likely to be hit the hardest. Pair this with a myriad of other challenges – such as low levels of literacy, poor access to basic public services, a lack of access to markets and an absence of employment opportunities, and voila – a recipe for vulnerability and low adaptive capacity.

These complex climate-related challenges have not escaped the attention of the Namibian government. Various policies, plans and programmes have been put in place to mitigate and deal with current and potential climate impacts. A common thread in all, or at least most, of these strategies is the call to upscale agricultural output, both as a means of growing the national economy and to enhance food security at the local level. My question is this: why is there such an emphasis being placed on agriculture, when it’s only going to get harder and harder to farm in dryland environments in future? Even freehold commercial farmers, who today have greater adaptive capacity than their small-scale counterparts, won’t necessarily be as resilient in future – not least because there won’t be nearly as much water for irrigation in the decades to come. So surely government should be starting to promote, more strongly, the diversification of livelihoods away from farming? And to consider alternative strategies for ensuring access to sufficient and healthy food in future?

Perhaps the lag in making this shift is because, more than being a just means of income and a primary source of food for daily consumption, farming is central to the cultural identity of many Namibian people.

This is especially the case amongst older, more customary members of the population, who still attach great cultural meaning to traditional ways of farming. The ceremonial significance associated with the planting and harvesting of certain crops is matched by the value attached to cattle.

For many Oshiwambo farmers, cows are - in a literal sense - their ‘bank accounts’ (not to mention their level of prestige and security, as well as their manhood). The wealth and status of these people is thus determined directly by the size and health of their herds. And this is not only amongst local community members – many wealthy cattle barons live and work in Windhoek, but continue to keep livestock back home in their villages. Similarly, even people who are employed in formal jobs or who own small businesses like ‘cuca shops’, ‘shebeens’ or car washes continue to keep fields of mahangu (pearl millet) for cultural or ceremonial purposes.

Given the importance of agriculture to the cultural identity and livelihoods of Namibian people, and considering the enabling policy environment for adaptation, one would expect local communities to be relatively well-supported when it comes to dealing with challenges at the intersection of agriculture and climate change. However, when visiting northern Namibia, it seems that this is not exactly the case.

Rather, there seems to be the classic problem, experienced in many developing countries, of a ‘policy-practice divide’. Be this due to a lack of resources within mandated government departments, capacity or technical skills deficits, a poor sense of urgency, or other commonly cited ‘barriers’; the bottom line is that the envisioned outcomes (and outputs) of these policies do not seem to be reaching the most vulnerable.

Of course, it is difficult to generalise. In some cases, farmers have started adopting climate-smart agriculture practices, such as conservation tillage, intercropping, drip irrigation and small-scale rice farming. Others are using coping mechanisms like destocking in dry years and drawing on social networks for support. But mostly, farmers continue to struggle to some degree.

So, it’s no wonder that there is an increasing rate of rural to urban migration – a trend that is largely (albeit not exclusively) seen amongst the youth, whose aspirations seem to be changing.

Many young people don’t want to be farmers like their parents and grandparents before them. And why would they, given the low effort-to-reward ratio associated with coaxing crops out of dry, infertile soil?

Not to mention the difficulties experienced by those subsistence farmers trying to keep enough healthy cows to pay for their uncle’s funeral, and still have enough ‘money’ in the bank for when their daughter gets married. Wouldn’t you, too, aspire to a different life, a different means of eking out a livelihood - even if the alternative doesn’t include moving to an urban area and acquiring an education, an office job and a steady income?

Like all complex problems, there is no single or simple solution to the challenges being faced by farmers in Namibia. Nor is there a direct answer to the question of what the future of farming will look like in drylands more generally.

However, all things considered, it would probably be a good idea for the Namibian government to begin shifting their focus away from agriculture, and start investing more intensively in skills development for the youth, the creation of markets and the stimulation of local economies – all the while, keeping climate resilience in mind.

*Julia Davis is a Senior Research Assistant with the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project – University of Cape Town. The article is part of a series ASSAR has produced for publication through Mmegi


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