By Zerihun B. Weldegebriel, Addis Ababa University, and Martin Prowse, Lund University
Ethiopia is currently facing the worst drought in its modern history, resurrecting the world’s collective memory of the tragedy of the 1980s. But such severe meteorological conditions may not be so rare in the future: the observed and projected impacts of changing climatic conditions in Ethiopia point towards a considerable worsening of food security status for many smallholder households. The following quote from a smallholder farmer in Lasta District, Northern Ethiopia, encapsulates the predicaments that millions of smallholder farmers in the country are facing:
“In recent years, the gamen [a local term for high temperatures] is becoming unbearable and we all are suffering from the extreme heat. We [the elders] spend time with our flocks of sheep in tree shades yearning for the belg [short] rains to give us some respite from the long dry spells which seem to stay forever.”
In our paper, recently published in The Geographical Journal, we provide empirical evidence of the perceptions of smallholder farmers towards climate variability and the forms of adaptation strategies employed in two districts in Northern Ethiopia. We argue that assessing smallholders’ perceptions of climate variability and existing diversification strategies is a good first step to understanding what works best in terms of successful adaptation to climate change. Perceptions and associated adaptation practices can be an important input for adaptation policy since strategies are mostly the result of long-term experiences and assessment of risks in their day-to-day production and consumption decisions.
We find that smallholders perceived increased temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns and increased extreme weather events in the last two to three decades. While meteorological records support the claims of an increase in temperature, claims of an overall reduction in rainfall are not reflected in the records. But this is mainly because the highly variable belg rains (short rains) are compensated for by more stable kiremet rains (long rains).
In view of the perceived changes in the climate, the article looked into the types and viability of the adaptation strategies pursued. Two major approaches were identified – diversification within agriculture and diversification outside agriculture. Most of the adaptation within agriculture comes through demonstration effects from state-led schemes whilst diversification away from farming (both off-farm and non-farm activities) is mainly wage labour differentiated by wealth group (with the poorest doing piecework on neighbours’ land and working on public works schemes whilst wealthier households seek formal-sector employment in nearby towns and further afield). In a nut shell, diversification away from agriculture is highly seasonal and largely follows a piecework/public works or wage labour path. Smallholders are constrained in their ability to enter self-employment due to a lack of regular demand, skills, finance as well as cultural attitudes.
There are subtle but important differences between the two districts that highlight the role of both climatic and non-climatic factors in adaptive capacity. This is particularly interesting for geographers as it highlights the spatio-temporal differences that play a role in determining both perception and adaption to climate variability and change (see Weber, 2016). For instance, farmers in Lasta perceive greater changes in the climate than those in Beyeda. We also find that smallholders in Lasta have diversified their livelihoods to a much greater extent. But this has at least as much to do with the proximity to urban opportunities and a construction boom in the nearby town (triggered by public investments) as changing climatic conditions.
Overall, our limited data from Northern Ethiopia suggests that diversification is occurring mainly through wage labour: international, national and regional for wealthier households, local piecework and on public works schemes for poorer households. In this context, policymakers could do worse than look more at how urban-rural connections can support smallholders’ adaptation efforts.
About the authors
Zerihun B. Weldegebriel is an Assistant Professor of Development Studies at Addis Ababa University, Centre for African and Oriental Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Martin Prowse is an Associate Senior Lecturer at Lund University, Department of Human Geography, Lund, Sweden
Weber, E. U. 2016. What shapes perceptions of climate change? New research since 2010. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 7(1), 125–134.
Embassy of the United States US response to the Ethiopian Drought 2015-2016 http://ethiopia.usembassy.gov/u.s.-response-to-the-ethiopian-drought.html