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Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice

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With more floods in the Horn of Africa, rice farming is becoming increasingly popular. Image credit: Chris Quintana from Wikimedia Commons

Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice  

Every year for five years, farmers in Aululic, South Sudan, watched their sorghum crops rot after floods inundated their lands. As the 2023 harvest approaches, though, the farmers, most of whom are women, expect a bumper harvest, of rice.

Rice is not a crop traditionally grown in this part of South Sudan, but climate change is causing upheaval in the north-eastern African country, just as it is worldwide. Across the globe, the changed conditions mean traditional crops are often no longer viable, invasive plants and pests are on the increase, and extreme weather events are more frequent, says the World Bank.

In Aululic, the farmers – 506 households comprising 3 306 individuals – turned to rice in the 2022 planting season after flooding destroyed their sorghum crop each year between 2018 and 2022. They harvested 150 bags of rice in 2022, each weighing 50kg. Of these bags, 15 were not consumed by the farming community and were sold for profit. This year, they anticipate a bigger rice harvest.

“I have harvested 550kg of rice this season and saved up enough rice seed to start planting next year … My hope is to see more people get involved in agriculture in South Sudan,” says Aluel Tong Mawein, who takes part in an agricultural project run by African humanitarian assistance organisation ForAfrika.

A costly cash outlay (Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice)

Although the switch to rice has been profitable for the Aululic farmers, it required a costly cash outlay, and extra physical work from them. They raised funds through a cash-for-assets programme to buy seeds, and had to change their fields to paddies, says ForAfrika’s Mulugeta Berhanu, food security and livelihood programme manager in South Sudan.

Cash-for-assets programmes allow low-income individuals and households to swap cash for some kind of labour-based activity that improves a community’s overall food production ability, such as cultivating new farmlands or developing communal infrastructure such as roads, shallow wells, water ponds and flood-control dykes.

Now scientists say that an El Niño effect, which typically causes dry conditions between July and September – part of South Sudan’s second cropping season – started in the second half of 2023.

El Niño is expected to worsen global warming, leading to more severe and intense heatwaves, wildfires, floods, droughts and epidemics, according to ACAPS, an independent analysis group established to help the non-governmental sector make informed decisions.

This new variability in weather patterns makes planning difficult for farmers. Even commercial farmers are finding it tough to deal with the changing climate, but emerging farmers often have limited access to climate information and adaptation resources. This can hinder their ability to prepare for and respond to the changing climate conditions.

Extreme weather’s devastating consequences (Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice)

“Extreme weather changes have significant and often devastating effects on small-scale and subsistence farmers. These farmers typically have limited resources and are highly dependent on the natural environment for their livelihoods,” says Fred Mutenyo, ForAfrika’s Uganda programmes manager and an agricultural expert.

“In extreme cases, the impacts of climate change can force small-scale farmers to leave their homes and seek alternative livelihoods in urban areas, contributing to rural-to-urban migration and potential overcrowding in cities as well as conflict over resources,” he adds.

Climate change and urbanisation are two major challenges faced by the Horn of Africa, where South Sudan is situated, the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), an independent American think tank, confirms.

The region is warming more quickly than the global average, the CFR says. This can lead to increasing socio-political insecurity, due to the Horn of Africa’s vast drylands, numerous pastoralist communities, multiple border disputes, unresolved transboundary water-rights issues, and porous land borders, the CFR says.

Positive coping mechanisms (Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice)

This is not to say that people involved in smallholder, subsistence and pastoral farming are without positive coping mechanisms, says Berhanu.

In the Central African Republic, for example, farmers have formed associations that pool resources and assets and that act as a financial buffer when challenges arise, he says.

Unfortunately, there are other, “negative” coping mechanisms that some turn to, especially as climate change puts increased strain on traditional coping mechanisms. Individuals have sold livestock, eaten inedible foods such as leaves, and even sold children – sons as servants or girls into child marriage.

To mitigate against this, ForAfrika teaches climate-smart farming practices to farmers in the seven African countries where it operates. These include adaptive strategies, such as planting drought-resistant crops, or, in the Aululic farmers’ circumstance, the flood-resistant rice.

In addition, farmers are taught how to preserve vegetables so that they have a longer shelf-life, and ForAfrika makes sure that its training emphasises the importance of community-level preparedness and collaboration in the face of climate-related risks, Mutenyo says.

“El Niño-related disruptions can make it difficult for trainers to deliver consistent and effective training programmes to farmers. Often, training needs to be adapted quickly to incorporate changes to the local situation,” he says.

Harsh weather can also cause changes in how crop pests behave, or lead to infestations, and this is another circumstance that all farmers, including subsistence farmers, need to adapt to.

It also affects livestock, reducing their access to water and forage, drowning them in the floods that accompany cyclones and causing them to suffer heat stress, which can harm general livestock health, reduce reproduction rates, and decrease milk and meat production.

Changing climate conditions also mean that farmers are having to deal with livestock diseases that are new to them – for example, a study by the International Livestock Research Institute found that climate change is increasing the risk of Rift Valley fever outbreaks in Africa. This disease is transmitted by mosquitoes and affects both animals and humans.

Communities need to be strengthened (Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice)

With climate change worsening, it is difficult, if not impossible, to stop the shocks that emanate from weather events such as droughts from happening, says Berhanu.

What can be done, however, is to work towards strengthening communities such as the farmers of Aululic so that they are better prepared to cope with the stresses climate change is causing.

For these particular farmers, the variability in climate conditions means that, after the 2023 rice harvest is in, they may well have to use the information they have to decide whether to plant rice, sorghum, or both.

Floods force farmers in South Sudan to rely on more rice

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