Eritrean farmers buffeted by climate change.

Author:Belloni, Milena
Position:Environment / Climate Change

Across the Horn of Africa, countries like Eritrea are experiencing increasingly irregular weather patterns. This has serious implications for farmers, who depend on a good harvest and are already battling to survive in an arid climate. At the same time, increases in water temperature are impacting Eritrea's beautiful coastline. But, as Milena Belloni and James Jeffrey argue, intelligent interventions can mitigate many situations.

Under the bright blue Eritrean sky, a farmer encourages oxen to stamp on piles of dried grass to help dislodge the seeds. Nearby, other farm workers are using pitchforks to do the same job, throwing the grass into the air in an ancient process known as winnowing. It's the harvest scene in rural Eritrea, a fundamentally important time in a country in which it is estimated that about 80% of the population survive as subsistence farmers.

It's also a period that is deeply woven into the passage of the seasons, a sequence around which much of the rest of life is planned out. But such regularity, formerly taken for granted over the centuries, is appearing increasingly threatened due to changing weather patterns. At the end of last year, unexpected rains fell during October and November--normally the dry season, when crops are fully maturing after the traditional rainy season of July to September--resulting in farmers having to reap early and before the normal harvest period in January.

"Had they not reacted, or reacted based on the traditional harvest, they would probably [have] lost their harvest," says Peter Smerdon of the World Food Programme (WFP).

During the past few years, Eritrea, like the rest of the Horn of Africa, has experienced fluctuating weather patterns, exacerbated by El Nino, the ocean-warming trend that is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.

Despite there being some scientific uncertainty about how the naturally occurring El Nino event and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other, scientific research suggests that global warming could be making this cyclical event occur more frequently and intensely.

At the same time, climate change has a disproportionately worse impact on livelihoods in societies where many depend on the natural environment for their day-to-day needs.

In Eritrea, farmers mainly grow sorghum, maize and teff--a staple foodstuff in Eritrea (as well as in Ethiopia), particularly when turned into a grey flatbread called...

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