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Rural African farmers are already adapting to climate change, according to case studies in Benin, Kenya and Malawi.
The studies, carried out by local environmental groups for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), found that farmers are using locally-relevant methods to adjust to their unpredictable environments.
Almost all African agriculture relies on rainwater rather than irrigation, but all farmers interviewed said erratic rainfall patterns and less predictable growing seasons are triggering major changes in farming practices, such as a switch to faster-growing crops or varieties.
Increasing capacity to cope with change is also important. Some farmers are clubbing together to build rain-harvesting tanks and setting up joint savings clubs.
"All these communities have adjusted to an increasingly volatile environment with a two-pronged approach: using available natural resources more efficiently, and raising capacity to cope with unpredictable future changes," the research team writes.
Farmers in all three countries said they have suffered from an increasing shortage of surface water. Wild swings in the weather, between persistent drought and torrential floods, have also been reported.
Everhart Nangoma, one of the case study researchers at the European Union offices in Blantyre, says farmers in Malawi now spend more on expensive, fast-growing varieties. They also plant a minimum of two crops in their gardens to ensure at least some harvest.
Krystel Dossou of the Organisation of Women’s Management of Energy, Environment and Integrated Development (OFEDI) in Benin, told SciDev.Net that gaps in expected rainfall patterns allow rats to unearth and consume seeds in the swamp forest of southeast Benin.
Farmers there are now planting fast-growing crops on areas of dried-out swamp forest to be certain of a harvest in the shorter growing season.
Dominic Walubengo of the Forest Action Network, did the Kenyan research in the semi-arid Njoro district, where rivers have become seasonal, boreholes have dried up or become salty, and residents have expanded agriculture into the nearby forest. Farmers here have always survived by using a variety of strategies, including saw-milling, farming and cattle.
"Now they have diversified into selling firewood, charcoal and water as well," Walubengo said.
Kenyan farmers are switching from wheat and potatoes to quick-maturing crops such as beans and maize, which can be planted any time it rains to cope with the irregular growing season, the report says.
Link to full report [80kB]