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From Birmingham to Bamako: How Farmers Deal with Drought

by Vanessa Meadu, Francesco Fiondella and Brian Kahn

The massive and wide-scale drought that has left American farmers shaking their fists at barren clouds is the fifth-worst on record for the U.S. Eight out of every 10 acres of agricultural land has been affected. As a result, farmers will pull in the lowest corn yield in more than a decade, and the soybean harvest will also be significantly lower than average. American consumers will likely feel the impact of this at the checkout counter in the months to come.

These harsh realities come in a country that has some of the most sophisticated data and technology for climate and weather monitoring in the world.

Diouna, Mali. Farmers here must contend with the Sahel’s dry, sandy soil and whatever rains the clouds bring to grow millet, maize, sorghum and other crops. Photo: F. Fiondella/IRI

U.S. farmers have unprecedented access to climate tools, information and forecasts. These range from a general El Niño/La Niña seasonal outlook to more regional-specific tools such as AgroClimate, a suite of easy-to-use products for fruit, corn and soy growers and ranchers in the Southeast. These tools can’t prevent a drought, but with the click of the mouse or the swipe of a smartphone, they can tell farmers in almost real-time how changing conditions will affect their bottom line, several months ahead of the harvest.

Of course, access is one thing. Knowing how to use that information effectively is another entirely. Even in a data-rich environment such as Florida, farmers are still learning how to use these tools to make meaningful decisions that can improve their bottom line.

Brehima Konaté, 70, is chief of Diouna Village. Photo: F. Fiondella/IRI

Thousands of miles away and worlds apart in Mali, farmers face a similar problem but use different methods to overcome it. Travel to the most remote parts of the country and you’ll meet farmers such as 70-year-old Brehima Konaté, chief of Diouna, a village in Mali’s Sahel region situated about 200 miles northeast of the capital, Bamako.

“We listen to the radio to hear rainfall related information and the right timing for planting. We also use traditional knowledge,” Konaté says. “We learn how to apply fertilizers at the appropriate timing. We were told to change the way we used to apply them and that we needed to do it right.”

Farmers in the Sahelian village of Diouna in southern Mali listen to the weather broadcasts as they prepare their field for planting. Photo: F. Fiondella/IRI

In 1982, Mali’s national meteorological service began supplying poor, remote farmers with agro-meteorological information to help them decide when and what to plant and when to fertilize their crops. The program arose in response to widespread, devastating famines across the Sahel caused by a series of prolonged droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Konaté, like most of this fellow farmers in Mali and its neighboring countries, doesn’t have access to irrigation. If the rainy season starts late, or underperforms — as it did last year in the Sahel — there’s not much he can do once he has planted his crops.

Fatoumata Dembéle tends to her vegetable garden in the village of Molobal, Mali. Photo: F. Fiondella/IRI

By providing farmers with forecast information at critical points ahead of the growing season and throughout it, Mali’s meteorological agency hopes to help Konaté and his fellow farmers across the country better manage the risks associated with a highly variable rainy season.

According to the agency, more than 2,500 farmers have already benefited from the program. The services offered may not be as sophisticated as those that American farmers have access to, but they are critical to their livelihoods nonetheless. “If you apply the information rigorously, then your production will surely increase,” says Konaté.

Daouda Diarra, from Mali’s national meteorological agency, oversees a government program that provides rainfall and other climate information to farmers. The program also distributes rain gauges and trains farmers how to use them. Photo: F. Fiondella/IRI

“This type of project is vital for farmers living in the Sahel area, where extreme weather and climate events are pushing farmers beyond their natural capacity to cope with change,” says Dr. Robert Zougmoré, who leads work in West Africa for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

The program brings together the world’s leading researchers in agricultural science, development research, climate science and earth system science to help farmers in developing countries overcome threats to agriculture and food security in a changing climate.

Farmers harvest okra in the village of Loulouni in Mali. They will sell the vegetable in the weekly market. Photo: F.Fiondella/IRI

“Right now, it’s possible to predict climate conditions in advance of planting seasons in much of Sub-Saharan Africa,” says Dr. James Hansen, a CCAFS researcher based at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), which is part of the Earth Institute. “But this information either doesn’t reach farmers, or reaches them in a form that is difficult to relate to their own farms. We’re studying Mali’s pioneering efforts in Africa to understand what made them successful and how it could become a model for other countries at risk,” Hansen says.The study in Mali is funded by CCAFS and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which is interested in enhancing food security in the region.

Researchers like Hansen and Zougmoré say that government ministers and donors need to consider investing in such tools as relatively low-cost means to rapidly and effectively improve food security in an increasingly uncertain world. This is as important in Mali’s Ségou Region as it is in the parts of the U.S. currently afflicted by the drought, and parts of the country like the Southwest, which will likely see drought occurring more frequently and severely due to climate change.

Read more:

Policy Brief: Agro-climate tools for a new climate-smart agriculture

Vanessa Meadu manages communications for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Francesco Fiondella and Brian Kahn run communications for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI).  

This post originally appeared as part of the Climate Change SOS series on the Daily Kos.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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