November 15th, 2011 by Joshua S Hill
Africa has never been a quiet continent, often the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons; wars, famine, drought, poverty, AIDS, to name just a few. Now, according to new research, climate change has the ability to cause Africa further harm by altering the water flows in many of the major river basins throughout the continent.
Such alterations could severely hamper nascent attempts to better manage water for agriculture and inflame tensions in regards to the ownership of water.
The research was presented at this week’s Third International Forum on Water and Food in Tshwane, South Africa, and is the result of five-years of global research conducted by scientists from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF).
The scientists examined the potential effect through to 2050 that higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns could have on the river basins around the world. Such impacts are often thought to be flattened due to a simultaneous increase in rainfall as a result of climate change amping up the climate systems.
However, with such assumptions comes the knowledge that the climates could as easily shift rain away from regions which need it and increase it in regions which do not need increases.
“Such changes will create a management nightmare and require a much greater focus on adaptive approaches and long-term climate projections than historically have been necessary,” said Vidal.
“Climate change introduces a new element of uncertainty precisely when governments and donors are starting to have more open discussions about sharing water resources and to consider long-term investments in boosting food production,” said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. “To prevent this uncertainty from undermining key agreements and commitments, researchers must build a reliable basis for decisions, which takes into account the variable impacts of climate change on river basins.”
The Limpopo Basin
According to the report, one of the more alarming findings was the projected changes to Africa’s Limpopo Basin, home to 14 million people and includes parts of Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The CPWF used data averages from climate models by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and found that rising temperatures and a matching decrease in rainfall in the Limpopo over the coming decades could deliver what they call a ‘one-two punch’ by depressing food production and intensifying poverty.
“We need to ask whether current agriculture development strategies in the Limpopo, which are predicated on current levels of water availability, are in fact realistic for a climate future that may present new challenges and different opportunities,” said Dr. Simon Cook, a scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and head of CPWF’s Basin Focal Projects (BFP).
“In some parts of the Limpopo even widespread adoption of innovations like drip irrigation may not be enough to overcome the negative effects of climate change on water availability,” Cook added. “But in other parts, investments in rain-fed agriculture such as rainwater harvesting, zai pits and small reservoirs might be better placed, as there could be sufficient rainfall for innovative strategies to boost production. The key is to obtain the data needed to make an informed decision.”
The report also focused on the effect that climate change could have on the Nile Basin. The CPWF analysis showed that an increase in temperatures of two to five degrees Celsius by 2050 has the potential to increase water evaporation to the point that it would “reduce the water balance of the upper Blue Nile Basin.”
The Nile has often been the source of much heated debate, such as Ethiopia’s plans to build dams upstream that would have direct impact on Egypt’s water supplies. However the two countries seem to be making progress in pushing past the tension, and the Egyptian government has also indicated that it is willing to consider a treaty for governing water resources on the Nile River Basin.
“The new insights regarding the effect of climate change on river basins may indicate a need to revisit assumptions about water availability,” said Vidal. “But if we invest in research needed to support far-sighted water policy, then decision makers can obtain the information they need to address the new wrinkles introduced by climate change that could otherwise impede agreements and investments.”
Properly managing Africa’s rainwater is viewed as essential for improving crop and livestock farming, which will hopefully increase the overall living situation for Africans. Many different means of managing rainwater are being touted as a new “climate smart” approach to agriculture.
Such ideas include creating small reservoirs to be used to store water for when rains are low or when there are floods as a means to divert water. Another idea is the use of flood mitigation and management strategies that could be useful in climate that could grow increasingly more irratic over the next few decades.
“These decentralized approaches to farming with rainwater are inexpensive, highly adaptable and provide immediate options for farmers to be their own water managers,” said Dr. Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN). “The climate in Africa’s river basins is already highly variable. Enhancing farmer’s adaptive capacity to respond to current challenges is smart even without climate change, but it is an absolute imperative now that we see what the future hold.”
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