January 2017 – mid-dry season – Western Kenya
A couple of days ago, something strange and awful happened in one of the farming communities we work with in Western Kenya: a flash flood. The strange thing about this? It’s meant to be the dry season. Two huge rainstorms hit Kisumu county and a river burst its banks. The carefully planted and irrigated crops were obliterated in an instant, now they sit waterlogged and rotting. This season there will be no harvest for the farmers.
Meanwhile, far away on the other side of the world, one of the first actions by the new US President was to remove all references to climate change from the White House website, fill his cabinet with oil barons, and to instigate an apparent clampdown on climate scientists speaking to the media.
To anyone paying the slightest bit of attention, it’s clear to see the climate is changing. Thirty years ago, the rainy and dry seasons in Kenya were as reliable as clockwork. For generations, smallholder farmers planted seeds in anticipation of the rains, growing two crop cycles each year to exploit the rainy periods.
However, in the five years I’ve been involved in smallholder irrigation, every single African farmer I’ve spoken with has told me this is no longer the case. In 2014, the long rains barely came at all in Kenya, triggering a huge drought, incomes and livelihoods took a massive hit with widespread crop failures and livestock deaths. Again in 2015 the long rains were poor and, surprise surprise, in 2016 too. And, it doesn’t seem to be getting better any time soon, the United Nations is warning that Kenyans should brace themselves: “There is serious drought looming in 2017” (Reuters).
In summary, those previously reliable rainfall patterns are seriously messed up. There is generally less rain, and when it does come, it’s erratic (IPCC, 2014). Smallholder farmers especially are at the mercy of the climate; crops, incomes and livelihoods are all on the line – and they can do little more than try again and pray.
In our small way, we hope that our solar irrigation pump will help farmers adapt to the erratic climate patterns, since the rains can no longer be relied upon. At least if there is a nearby water source farmers can guarantee a harvest in the dry season. And unlike increasingly common petrol pumps, our solar water pumps won’t contribute to the rapidly rising carbon emissions which are the cause of this instability. But for floods, all we can do is offer our sympathy and some sand bags to these inundated farmers.
As for the new US administration, comfortable in their climate controlled buildings, blissfully ignorant to the daily battles of smallholder farmers, history will not look kindly upon them. It is each of our jobs to ensure that science, and climate friendly innovations prevail.
Author: Toby Hammond