Rain rules the lives and wellbeing of rural people in most developing countries: it determines whether they will have enough to eat, be able to provide basic necessities and earn a living, but climate change has made rainfall more erratic in many parts of the world.
"What is scary is how fast things have been changing in the last 20 years," said Abba Ayalew Tegene, 83, a farmer in northern Ethiopia quoted in a report released on Earth Day, 22 April, by development agency Oxfam, which found that rainfall patterns were often changing faster than people could adapt.
"We used to be able to grow all kinds of crops, but when the rain started becoming short and unpredictable, we switched to potato that grows fast with less rain ... This year, the rain was even shorter and the land refused to give us even potato – what are we to do?"
Another study, by US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), assessed the vulnerability to climate change of Ethiopian farmers by calculating their adaptive capacity and creating vulnerability indices, and then comparing the indices across regions. Afar and Tigray in the north, and Somali and Oromia in the south, were more vulnerable to climate change than the rest of the country's nine regions.
Rainfall is particularly variable in Ethiopia - once a poster-child for famine - where agriculture accounts for half the gross domestic product (GDP) and 80 percent of jobs. A USAID report noted that a rise or fall in GDP followed about a year after a change in rainfall.
|Small changes in the quality, onset, and cessation of rain over days or even hours can make a big difference|
The Oxfam report, The Rain Doesn't Come on Time Anymore: Poverty, Vulnerability, and Climate Variability in Ethiopia, explored how people viewed changes in rainfall and their impact. Communities in four administrative areas, or woredas, were interviewed, but in some instances people's perceptions of changes in the climate could not be backed by meteorological data.
"Small changes in the quality, onset, and cessation of rain over days or even hours can make a big difference, whereas meteorological data is more likely to measure totals and larger changes," the report noted.
When a perception of climate variability was "combined with deforestation (which can increase local temperatures), soil erosion, population growth, economic development (or lack thereof), and illness, it can feel like the climate is getting worse because even small changes can have terrible impacts", the researchers commented.
These factors put pressure on limited resources such as water, which was then perceived as declining. "So even though the total mean annual rainfall may be stable, as demand for it has increased, this gives the impression that rainfall has decreased," the report said.
Yet this did not mean that rainfall patterns have not changed. Since 1997, the main, or belg, rains, which fall between February and May and are critical to food production, have declined considerably in the northeast, southeast and southwest of Ethiopia.
It has also been getting warmer: the annual minimum temperature has increased by about 0.37 degrees Celsius every decade between 1960 and 2006, the Oxfam report noted.
"From the Rift Valley to Tigray, farmers and pastoralists around the country have shared with us the toll that climate change is having on their communities, from ruined crops to dying cattle," said Abera Tola, Oxfam's Horn of Africa regional director. "Even relatively small shifts in the growing season can spell disaster for the poorest farmers and pastoralists, who are already struggling in poverty."
Rural communities have begun to adapt, restocking herds and flocks by using a novel "revolving fund" approach with the help of an NGO in the Ofla woreda, 605km north of the capital, Addis Ababa.
"First, a needy household buys sheep on credit. Then, when those sheep reproduce, the farmers give the first offspring to another household to pay for the incurred debt." That household then continues the cycle.
Oxfam asked communities to keep building on adaptation measures, to look at drawing up long-term strategies, and invest in drought-monitoring systems and risk management plans, especially for women, who are particularly vulnerable.
It urged the Ethiopian government to draw up a national framework to guide climate change adaptation, and build on its existing programmes such as National Adaptation Programme of Action, and the Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP). It should also ensure the active participation of civil society in drawing up climate change policies and integrating these into development priorities.
The IFPRI study, which had focused on seven woredas, had also called for more integrated rural schemes to reduce poverty and build resilience. The vulnerability of the Afar and Somali regions was attributed to a low level of regional development, while Tigray and Oromia suffered more frequent droughts and floods but had lower access to technology, institutions and infrastructure.