Camel farming could be the answer

Camel farming could be an option for some 20 million to 35 million people living on semi-arid land in Africa, who will soon be unable to grow crops because of climate change, says the co-author of a new study.

By 2050, hotter conditions and less rainfall in an area covering 500,000 sq km to one million sq km of marginal farmland - about the size of Egypt - would make it harder for people grow crops, said Philip Thornton, a scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Nairobi, capital of Kenya, co-author of the report.

The study, Croppers to livestock keepers: livelihood transitions to 2050 in Africa due to climate change, was published in a special edition of the journal, Environmental Science and Policy, to coincide with the UN climate change meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week. The meeting is the second in the run-up to the December conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, to consider a global accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The two authors suggest that rethinking and planning now for agricultural systems that will be necessary in a few decades, like boosting production of the hardier types of livestock - goats, donkeys, camels and some types of cattle - could provide an alternate source of income.

Thornton told IRIN that the affected communities could take the lead from pastoralist communities, who have been adapting to climate variability for generations. About 10 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa – around 72 million people - live in rangeland systems.

''There is currently a mismatch between the kind of localised climate change impact information that is urgently needed, and what can objectively be supplied''

The Samburu tribe in northern Kenya, traditionally cattle farmers, had begun keeping camels in the last two or three decades because droughts had diminished grazing, leading to diseases in the herds and cattle raiding by other groups, whereas the neighbouring tribes, who kept camels, fared better.

"Any increase in livestock must be managed sustainably, but our research shows there are many areas in Africa where, over the next few decades, climate vulnerability, coupled with market demand for animal products, will prompt many farming communities to add more livestock to their agriculture systems and we should prepare now for this inevitability," said Carlos Seré, Director General of ILRI.

The authors focused on the arid and semi-arid regions of West, East and southern Africa, where poor rainfall routinely causes crops to fail in one out of every six or even fewer growing seasons.

Various climate projections have indicated that the length of the reliable growing season on the affected land would drop below 90 days, making it impossible to cultivate maize - the staple food in much of Africa - and in some places even "drought-tolerant crops, such as millet" would be difficult to grow.

Livestock-farming as a solution is not a new idea. Thornton said the goal of their research was ultimately to use climate change projections to pinpoint specific areas in Africa where it would be appropriate to promote livestock ownership on small farms and help farmers deal with the risks inherent in such operations.

However, "there is currently a mismatch between the kind of localised climate change impact information that is urgently needed, and what can objectively be supplied," he commented.

For example, while there was consensus that temperatures would rise significantly, climate models did not always agree as to how the pattern and amount of rainfall in some parts of Africa would change.

Thornton said more detailed research was necessary to help implement programmes to assist the people living in these areas.