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FEATURE: Can small-scale adaptation actions address the food crisis in the Horn of Africa?

Yes, small-scale adaptation actions should be widely adopted as a way of addressing recurring food crises in the Horn of Africa, says Dr. Richard Munang of the UN’s Climate Change Adaptation and Development (CC DARE) programme. Large-scale, top down commercial agriculture fails to build the resilience needed in the Horn of Africa to avoid crisis after crisis.

Recent headlines have been dominated by what many have described as ‘the worse drought the Horn of Africa has suffered in the past sixty years’. This comes as no surprise. Changes to weather patterns in recent years have meant many farmers in East Africa are increasingly unable to predict when or if the rainy season will begin, and when the rains do come, whether there will be too little or too much rainfall. Both scenarios can have devastating consequences.

Over the coming decades, temperatures in this region will continue to rise, and rainfall patterns will change. This will create major problems for food production and availability. The recurrent nature of the crisis, especially in the face of climate change, highlights the need for adequate measures to build resilience – without which the crisis may only worsen. This will require practical solutions that can enhance processes involving adaptation to climate change. Supporting and building on previously tested small-scale innovative adaptation actions to protect the most vulnerable groups of people is one important solution.

Horn of Africa crisis – a window of opportunity?

The current drought crisis in the Horn of Africa may offer a window of opportunity to refocus the world’s attention on food, agriculture and rural areas, and to re-establish food security as a global priority. Efforts to ensure the existence of food systems that provide adequate food security for those who need it most – like the rural poor in the Horn of Africa – require a broader range of solutions.

Previous experience demonstrates that small-scale actions can provide the right framework for catalysing transformative change on a larger scale. Small-scale approaches can be quickly implemented. They engage local users, keeping the implementation process simple, which makes them more efficient, effective and equitable than past top-down practices. Small-scale approaches:

–       Democratise actions and solutions: Citizens decide which new policy and technical innovations are needed, when, where and under what conditions.

–       Promote autonomous learning: Knowledge creation by and for the people means taking responsibility for one’s own learning processes, and addressing issues that relate to people’s aspirations and lives.

–       Enable contexts for social learning and action: Specialist knowledge can usefully feed citizen deliberations, thereby strengthening civil society.

–     Demonstrate ownership: Communities exercise effective leadership over their adaptation and development policies and strategies, and better coordinate development oradaptation actions.

Small-scale innovative adaptation solutions – a panacea?

The paper ‘Using Small-Scale Adaptation Actions to Address the Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa’by Richard Munang and Johnson Nkem argues that current intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.  Small-scale actions by small-holder farmers developed through a democratic process can provide a mechanism to find sustainable solutions to food security by putting small-holders at the centre of action.

Small-scale initiatives reduce tillage, protect the soil surface and alternate cereal crops with legumes that enrich the soil. Research-based, small-scale interventions that help farming systems adapt to climate change can thereby guide progress towards achieving food security and addressing the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. These are the lessons from the Climate Change Adaptation and Development Programme (CC DARE, jointly implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for Sub-Saharan Africa.

A more food-secure future requires a shift away from top-down, corporate approaches to agricultural research and practice, in favour of an inclusive approach that involves giving more decision-making power to local people, including farmers and indigenous people. Communicating food security solutions to the public can help balance vested interests and level the field in favour of small producers.

Sustainable ecosystems management: the global case for action

Ecosystem degradation undermines food production and the availability of clean water among other ecosystem services, thereby threatening human health, livelihoods and ultimately societal stability. Degradation increases the vulnerability of populations to natural disasters like the Horn of Africa droughts. To meet the food needs of today and tomorrow, ecosystem services, such as water provision, pollination and maintenance of soil fertility must be enhanced. Farmers rely on soil micro-organisms to maintain soil fertility and structure for crop production, and on wild species in natural ecological communities for crop pollination and pest and predator control.

At present, the value of these services is not built into the cost of food production. The result is that farmers are not rewarded for stewarding their land for future generations, and food production and distribution are often environmentally damaging. The huge international research project on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) has drawn attention to the economic benefits of ecosystem services and calculating the costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. TEEB’s synthesis report (2010) argued that if the goods and services provided by the natural world are not valued and factored into the global economic system, the environment will become less resilient to shocks, risking human lives, livelihoods and the global economy.

Sustainable ecosystems management: the local case for action

A project in Togo, which used small-scale fiscal stimulus action, led to renovation of a small dam for harvesting rainwater. The project improved access to water for the local communities, and also expanded rural livelihood activities such as market gardening. The co-benefits of having year-round water supply to the surrounding ecosystem include the restoration of biodiversity, providing medicinal products for households and dietary supplementation for local communities. A joint UNEP-United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) study conducted by the University of Essex that analysed 114 cases showed that farmers in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have doubled their productivity – and ensured food security – by shifting their production to organic or near-organic methods.

A way forward?

Given the unfortunate, frequent occurrence of droughts in the Horn of Africa, practical actions are ever more critical to ensure achieving food security in this region. The benefits of understanding what has previously worked can provide a guiding vision as we proactively address the current crisis. With proper planning, transparent resource management, innovative food security policies, and integrative agriculture inputs and outputs, it is not too late to turn the Horn of Africa’s food crisis to the benefit of local communities.

Read the full paper ‘Using Small-Scale Adaptation Actions to Address the Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa‘ by Dr. Richard Munang and Dr. Johnson N. Nkem here.

Image: Livestock farmers receive payout for insurance scheme, courtesy CIAT.

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