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Friday, May 11, 2012

Why can't it rain?

NAIROBI, Kenya—In the sprawling hills of the Kangundo district in Kenya’s Eastern Province, just a few hours outside of capital city Nairobi, Fred Kiambaa has been farming the same small, steep plot of land for more than 20 years.
Born and raised just outside Kathiini Village in Kangundo, Kiambaa knows the ups and downs of agriculture in this semi-arid region. He walks up a set of switchbacks to Kangundo’s plateaus to tend his fields each morning and seldom travels further than a few miles from his plot.
Right now, all that remains of his maize crop are rows of dry husks. Harvest season finished just two weeks ago, and the haul was meager this time around.
“Water is the big problem, it’s always water. We have many boreholes, but when there is no rain, it’s still difficult,” he said.
Kiambaa and his wife, Mary, only harvested 440 pounds of maize this season, compared to their usual 2,200. They have six children, meaning there will be many lean months before the next harvest, and worse: Though March is Kenya’s rainiest month, it’s been mostly dry so far.
“The rain surely is not coming well this year. Rain is the key. We can only pray,” he said.

The future - our African future - is here. Never mind the cautious weather service spoksepeople saying on air, "It's not unprecedented to have such warm weather in May," or "Of course, we do have years when rainfall is down" - this is a trend. It's years of unusual weather, months when the maxiumum temperatures rise daily (and I mean every day, day after day after day) up to four degrees celsius above normal. Radio presenters burble on about "such fabulous weather!" but we are starting to pay the price - for the global north's and our own South Africa's profligate use of fossil fuels - in poor crops and hunger. (I do hope the myriad stories like Fred Kimabaa's will be taken into account when the rich and powerful put their heads together at Rio+20.)
Last year, I saw a local atmospheric scientist present models of southern African climate for the next 80 years or so. It was one of the defining moments of my life. This is how I described it in the July issue of Skyways magazine:
Pretoria: a lecture room at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on a sunny late winter day. The equipment is modern and streamlined, the lecturer is an atmospheric modeller who speaks dispassionately, temperately, calmly, explaining the features of the map on-screen that shows southern Africa. And then he presses a key on his laptop, and all of a sudden, the audience is in a horror movie.
On the screen, the map ticks over with the regularity of a metronome, year by year, decade by decade: 2020, 2030, 2040, 2050… The colours that indicate temperature and rainfall change. Blue turns to peach which deepens to orange, to russet, to scarlet. I scrawl on my notepad, “Namibia, Angola, Botswana, gone, gone, gone!”
It’s been known for a long time that Africa would be one of the hardest-hit regions as climate change kicks in. But somehow, seeing the changes visually represented like this has a visceral effect. It’s got the heart-breaking impact and inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
Dr Francois Englebrecht, an atmospheric modeller at the CSIR, has done a range of models that peek into the future. Six simulations were performed in what is the largest experiment of its kind yet done on African terrain. Each of them gives slightly different results, but all show the same trends in the same areas.
Climatic features of our region dictate that we will buck the trend elsewhere in the world, in which a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Southern Africa is going to be warmer and drier. We’re special in yet another way: actual observation shows that over the last century, our temperatures have risen in tandem with the rising temperatures around the world – but our increase is always almost exactly double that of the rest of the world’s average. The models mercilessly show this trend continuing into the far, foreseeable future.

Here’s a telling quote from one of Dr Engelbrecht's colleagues, quoted on
Dr Constansia Musvoto from the Council for Scientific and industrial Research (CSIR) told members of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) that agricultural production in Southern Africa is projected to be halved within the next 70 years as a result of climate change.
“Temperatures will increase by up to 6ºC, while rainfall will drop by as much as 40 percent in some parts of the region.”

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