Climate change tool helps identify vulnerable farmers

 The production of maize, South Africa's staple food, could drop by as much as 30 percent in another two decades as climate change brings more intense droughts, but little is known about how this will affect farmers.

Now, an analytical tool based on a study, Mapping South African Farming Sector Vulnerability to Climate Change and Variability, has been developed to help policy-planners identify the communities most vulnerable to climate change and help them prepare for radically different farming conditions.

South Africa has approximately 100 million hectares of agricultural land, of which 14 million receive sufficient rainfall to grow crops.

In the densely populated rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal Province on the east coast, the largest agricultural contributor to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), small-scale farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture were found to be among the least resistant to global warming. HIV prevalence is also particularly high. Farmers in Limpopo Province, in the north, and Eastern Cape Province, on the southeast coast, were also vulnerable.

“The farmers in those provinces have less resilience because the areas they live in are undeveloped, with no means to access drought-tolerant crop varieties,” said Glwadys Gbetibouo, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Economics and Policy in Africa, at the University of Pretoria, and one of the study’s two authors; the other writer was Claudia Ringler, a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute, a US-based think-tank.

The tool is an index of 19 environmental and socio-economic indicators that are used to determine vulnerability, such as frequency of droughts, percentage of irrigated land, farm income, farm size, HIV prevalence and farm assets in the country’s nine provinces.

The Western Cape and Gauteng provinces, which have a high level of infrastructural development and literacy but make a much lower agricultural contribution to GDP, are relatively low on the vulnerability index.

farmers in those provinces have less resilience because the areas they
live in are undeveloped, with no means to access drought-tolerant crop

What can be done

The study suggests reducing pressure on natural resources, improving environmental risk management, and providing social safety nets for the poor.

In the highly vulnerable provinces policy-makers should enact measures to promote market participation, especially among small-scale farmers; encourage the diversification of livelihoods to make people less dependent on agriculture; put in place social programmes and increase spending on health, education and welfare to help maintain and strengthen physical and intangible human capital.

Gbetibouo called for the development of infrastructure in rural areas, and the provision of agricultural insurance. In high exposure regions, especially coastal zones, priority should be given to developing more accurate systems for early warning of extreme climatic events such as drought or floods.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, food production in South Africa has increased over the last 40 years, mainly through improvements in productivity, but production per capita in the Southern African Development Community as a whole is declining.

"There have been large drops in production (notably 1981–1983 and 1989–1993) that coincided with major droughts followed by periods of recovery. But these recovery periods have not been sufficient for food production to keep up with population growth. This could become an area of concern, as it may have an impact on food security, not only in South Africa, but in the region also."