Newsletter Editorial, August 2011

Terje Oestigaard

Twelve million people in the Horn of Africa are at the risk of starvation because of drought, a drought that is said to be the worst in 60 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, 95 per cent of agriculture is rainfed and therefore highly vulnerable to extreme rainfall variability.

Climate change as experienced by humans manifests itself in changes in the water worlds: there might be more floods or the rain may fail or come too early or too late, all of which may result in devastated harvests and subsequent hunger and famine.

Whether the current drought is a consequence of climate change is uncertain, because climate change refers to changes in weather patterns over 30 years and extreme variations in rainfall have always occurred. However, with the predicted climate change, more extreme weather and variability is expected.

Countries mainly dependent on rainfed agriculture for subsistence face new uncertainties and are highly vulnerable when rains fail. When this happens, societies in varying degree risk famine, depending on what risk-management and risk-coping strategies they have developed. As such, the consequences of climate change, weather variability and fluctuations are partly socially, economically and politically constructed.

From an agricultural perspective, in aiming to reduce and limit the uncertainties of reliance on unpredictable and fluctuating rain for subsidence and survival, small-scale irrigation is one solution. Small-scale irrigation will provide a relative secure and predictable volume of water for cultivation. However, irrigation is dependent upon politics. In the Nile Basin Region in particular, the use of water for irrigation by upstream countries has always been a controversial issue because it reduces the amount of water available to downstream countries. Thus, agricultural practices, droughts, famines and death are part of the larger geopolitics of the region.

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