How a climate crisis can lead farmers to joint planning and response

Droughts in South Africa has led to coordinated joint planning and partnerships to combat the problem. Stephanie Midgley

There is nothing like a major climate disaster to raise interest in the problem of climate change among farming communities. Farmers in many parts of the world have, in the last decade, strained under extended droughts and intense flooding. But farmers in southern Africa last experienced a major drought 30 years ago – and memories tend to fade – until the current devastating drought hit the farming community.

Farmers are deeply optimistic people. They have to be, considering the huge numbers of risks they have to deal with. And climate change is usually not anywhere near the top of their list of priority challenges. This seems strange to climate scientists, whose work shows clearly that the agricultural sector is one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change, particularly in water-scarce regions.

The current severe drought appears to have made the penny drop and role players are scrambling to deal with the crisis while assessing what needs to be done to create greater resilience. The message that more frequent climate disasters like droughts can be expected in future is also being taken seriously.

Constructive discussions

A team of researchers completed an assignment from South Africa’s Western Cape Government to develop a provincial climate change response strategy and to implement a framework for the agricultural sector. The SmartAgri Plan project began in August 2014, many months before the first signs of the drought appeared. But at the end of the project, in March 2016, the province and country were in the grip of a two-year drought.

This fortuitously provided an environment ripe for engagement on the issue of climate change and how to respond to it. From the start, the project remit was to engage thoroughly across the sector – and related sectors like water and environment – and across the province. The plan was to find out what farmers, government and others are already doing to deal with climate risks. But also, to find out what approaches and measures are needed to build climate resilience.

During the first rounds of engagement it became clear that dialogue between government and the farming communities is sensitive to issues of mistrust and misunderstanding. This emanates from past injustices and present policy uncertainties. The team was surprised at the willingness of all participants to hear each other and try find solutions which benefit everyone, in the context of farming and non-farming problems.

There was real concern for the fate of the most vulnerable farmers, often smallholder communities and new farmers, who needed more support. Equally, all types of farmers generally place a high premium on good catchment management, water management and fire management. Their role in platforms like water user associations and fire protection associations was acknowledged.

A coordinated response

This made a valuable contribution to the development of a plan which represents a road map for an integrated and inclusive response across a number of time scales. It is supported by scientific and local knowledge and experience, linking top-down policy guidance with practical bottom-up perspectives. Critically, disaster risk reduction and management is prioritised as a discrete strategic focus area needing greater attention. If this plan is well-resourced for implementation it will strengthen the ability of the sector to plan for and manage multiple interacting climate stresses and contribute to reducing vulnerability.

It is crucial for collaboration to adopt approaches and measures to build climate resilience. Stephanie Midgley

So far so good. Then, towards the end of 2015 and first half of 2016, the drought hit with a vengeance across the region especially the Western Cape’s west coast and central Karoo (a semi-desert in the southern interior of South Africa). Crop harvests failed with losses of 200 000 tonnes of wheat (50-100% per farm), 230 ha of potatoes and 15% of fruit, and numerous livestock. The knock-on impact was up and down the agricultural value chain, and for farming communities struggling with unemployment, was critical.

Relief was provided in the form of fodder assistance to the most desperate farmers, to feed around 17 000 cattle. The Western Cape provincial government convened a two-day provincial drought dialogue with all involved in June 2016. The aim was to discuss what else the provincial government could do to strengthen the response to the current and future droughts.

Agreement was reached on a set of 32 high priority interventions with further prioritisation of five actions. These focus on bridging finance for farmers to keep farmers on the land, optimising water usage, accurate drought forecasts, a social security net for vulnerable communities affected by the drought, and revisiting water management and policies currently hampering new infrastructure.

Looking ahead

Interestingly, the drought dialogue priorities correspond closely with the SmartAgri Plan. Rather than being confined to the strategic focus area on disaster management, they were spread widely across other focus areas as well. They intersected strongly with natural resources like, soil and water management. They focused on proactive joint planning and coordination, information and communications, regulatory and financial barriers, and social vulnerability.

The role of government in creating a cooperative and supportive environment emerged as the key requirement for building resilience. The provincial government has taken the recommendations forward into further planning and implementation, together with the SmartAgri Plan.

There is certainly value in bringing all involved to the discussions. Government officials, farmers and their leadership, and others like water and conservation managers come together around a table. They jointly built strategies around how to respond to current and future climate challenges. The drought has provided an opportunity to focus minds, acknowledge the urgency of action and identify priorities.

It has also reinforced the understanding that coordinated joint planning and partnerships which enable the much needed shift from typical responses to prevention are required. Everyone would prefer the building of greater resilience to climate stress and disasters compared to the current unsustainable reliance on government relief.

The time to make it happen is now. And hopefully the role players will keep talking and listening. This will build capital based on trust and a common vision of a shared future.