Rising temperatures devastating Africa’s small farmers

Senegal, democratic and stable, used to be a success story

Approximately 90 per cent of the villagers in Passkoto receive food aid. Photograph: Jenny Matthews

Approximately 90 per cent of the villagers in Passkoto receive food aid. Photograph: Jenny Matthews


Sitting in front of her mud-and-straw hut, surrounded by her children, Djenabou Diallo waits.

She waits for the food which she hopes her husband will bring home after a day’s foraging in the forest. She waits for the rains which never seem to come on time these days. She waits for a repeat of the aid which last year fended off starvation. And ultimately, she waits for the hope of better times ahead.

Africa’s achievements and failures are only too evident as the midday sun burns over this dusty village in central Senegal. It is a miracle that Djenabou’s 10 children have been delivered safely and both she and the children are in reasonable health. But their single-room house is bare and so are their food stocks.

We are in the lean season, when the fruits of last year’s harvest start running out and the nervous wait begins for a rainy season that will allow crops to be sown. “My husband brings home wild berries from the forest and wood to make charcoal with,” she explains. “But we have no animals, not even a cock, and no tools to work the fields.”

Ninety per cent of the villagers here in Passkoto are in receipt of food aid, but you’d be wrong in thinking this part of Africa has always been a basket case. “We have only needed help in the last 10 years,” says Deoude Sow, the village president. “Up to then we managed. We survived by going into the forest and cutting wood or picking wild fruit, or we sold our animals if we had any.”

Emergency aid
Democratic, stable, fertile Senegal used to be a rare success story in Africa. It could feed its people and even export surplus food. But last year, almost one million people needed emergency food aid as the harvest failed across much of west Africa. “When the help came, we had reached the point where we had nothing. We were waking up to the sound of children crying and there was nothing we could do,” Deoude recalls.

Only rapid intervention by international agencies averted a crisis. The EU stumped up more than €100 million for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), which distributed aid and cash vouchers to the worst-affected communities across west Africa.

However, the fear of a repeat this year is strong. So what happened to destroy its rich soil and beggar its farmers?

Abdoulay Faye, an elder in the village of Sagna, explains. “Before, there were trees everywhere and the drought didn’t come to make us sick. We had plenty of choice in our food and wood for cooking. Now we have to travel up to a kilometre for wood.”

The village’s cattle and goats used to graze locally but now have to travel great distances to find grass, he says. “Wind erosion has weakened the soil and we don’t have money for fertiliser. Our well is much lower. Because of the lack of water the trees don’t bear enough fruit for us to eat.”

People everywhere are noticing changed weather patterns, but in these parts climate change is pushing entire communities over the edge. “The rains have become extremely erratic. They start early, finish late, and there are long spells without any rain,” explains Inge Breuer, country representative of the WFP.

Along the coast, rising sea levels have rendered huge tracts of land unusable because of salt water contamination. The unreliability of traditional agriculture has propelled the young into the cities and, for many, to a marginal existence in Europe.

Villages like Sagna would have experienced a drought once in a decade; now it’s happening every second year, with devastating consequences. Even the rains, when they do come, bring bad tidings, as torrential downpours drive deep ravines across the dirt tracks that link the village to the outside world.

Paying the price
Sengalese aid worker Malick Ba says his country is paying the price for practices introduced decades ago by its French colonisers. “They needed large amounts of food to feed the inhabitants of European cities so they destroyed traditional agriculture, denuded the landscape and introduced the intensive cultivation of individual crops.”

The peanut became the king of Sengalese agriculture and still accounts for 40 per cent of land use. But as more trees were felled, temperatures rose and flooding increased.

Then the broader impact of rising temperatures completed the job. Governor of Kaolack province Amadou Ly dates the changes in weather patterns to the 1970s. As rainfall fell to a quarter of previous levels, his father lost most of his 800-strong herd of cattle to starvation.

“Commercial agriculture had replaced subsistence agriculture. The increases in output required impoverished the soil. So we were starving the ground just at the moment when the climate was in chaos.

“People tried to compensate by growing over a wider area, so the coexistence between farmers and pastoralists grew more difficult,” says Ly, who sports a picture of his own cattle on his phone screensaver.

He quotes a saying of the local Wolof people: “The town hunts the field and the field hunts the forest.” So as agriculture becomes unsustainable people move to a precarious future in the cities; the capital Dakar alone accounts for more than a third of Senegal’s 14 million population.

Much of the country is threatened by desertification. It’s a stealthy process, as Ly points out: “The desert doesn’t come as a wave. It’s more like skin cancer – a mark here and there at first before it spreads.” Blinding dust storms have become a regular occurrence even in coastal Dakar.

For Cyprien Fabre, head of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office in Senegal, evidence of widespread malnutrition in a country which was formerly an abundant food producer is the “final proof” of the failure of 50 years of development effort.

Across the Sahel, that vulnerable zone that spans Africa between the Sahara and the tropics, 200,000 young children die of malnutrition each year and more than 10 million are food insecure. “Last year’s crisis was a real wake-up call. Crisis after crisis has destroyed the people’s resilience,” he says.

The continuing rise in population doesn’t help; in other parts of Africa families are growing less rapidly but here in largely Muslim Senegal the trend is inexorably upwards. Another complicating factor is the ongoing conflict in neighbouring Mali.

Conscious of the challenge, agencies such as the WFP are adopting new approaches to tackle the effects of climate change. A new government has acknowledged the scale of the problem but needs external help. Yet the question of who ultimately bears responsibility for the problem – and who will pay to clear up the mess – remains unanswered.