Expert Blog Series on climate change: Part 1

What are the impacts of climate change in East Africa?

David Marcelis is a project leader and GIS & remote sensing researcher at AgroCares. His mission is to put climatic data and other information about the farming environment into the hands of farmers. In this first blog, he highlights the impacts of climate change for farmers in East Africa.

What is the biggest consequence of climate change on agriculture?

The consequences of climate change are numerous and can be observed all over the world. Main indicators of climate change include stronger variation of climate conditions, higher risk of biodiversity loss and acidification of oceans. Agriculture relies strongly on weather conditions and we see an increased variability of indicators such as rainfall and temperature. It has been highlighted for East Africa by the paper from Schreck & Semazz (see figure below) and this phenomenon directly impacts farmers. For example, it is more and more difficult for farmers in East Africa to forecast the beginning of the rainy season. If grains are sowed too much ahead of the first rains, only a few will come up. In this case, impacts on yields are tremendous. Farmers facing soil degradation especially suffer from these consequences.

Sources: C.J. Schreck & F.H.M. Semazz, Variability of the recent climate of Eastern Africa, 2004

How is soil degradation linked to climate change?

It is difficult to identify a direct causality between climate change and soil degradation. However, a farmer with degraded soils is more vulnerable to climate change. One of the common consequences of soil degradation is the decrease of the water holding capacity of the soil. The water holding capacity is the ability of a soil to store water and make it available for plants. It is crucial for farmers to have soils with sufficient water holding capacity to benefit from rainfall, especially in the context of growing rainfall variability. As I just explained, rainfall variability increases due to climate change. Therefore, soil degradation together with climate change increases the vulnerability of farmers. This is a concerning issue in East Africa.

Is climate change a stronger phenomenon in East Africa than in Europe?

Climate change is a worldwide phenomenon. Its impacts in Europe and East Africa are difficult to compare, as it depends both on the geographical and social situation of these areas. What I can say is that weather data show that climate variability is higher in tropical countries than in areas with a more temperate climate such as Europe. It is very clear on the map from the Center from Global Development that overall direct risks of physical climate impacts are higher between the tropics.

Why do the impacts of climate change depend on the social situation of an area?

Here the comparison between East Africa and Europe gives a good idea of what I mean. In East Africa, most people are farmers relying of rainfed agriculture for their livelihood. In the Netherlands for example, farming represents less than 3% of the total employment and almost all agricultural lands are irrigated. Farmers in East Africa are more vulnerable to climate change because they rely more on weather conditions. The way societies are organized and depend on weather conditions is crucial to understand how large the impact of climate change can be. I foresee that largest impacts will be measured in areas that are most depend on weather conditions, and that includes East Africa.