Too much, too little, never enough
21 Aug 2015 by Dylan Lowthian, Communications Analyst, UNDP Media and Advocacy team
“I beg everyone to think. It’s not just one country – we have to think about the whole world. We have to say this to our leaders.”
Benito Velasquez has farmed a modest patch of land in central Bolivia all his life. “Climate change is taking place”, he says. “We have lots of work to do. Maybe in 50 years we can repair what we have destroyed. We have to repair it.”
I have come to meet Benito to see firsthand how changing weather patterns are affecting Bolivian farmers. The interview is part of a visit to four countries on three continents, to document the effect climate change is having on agricultural communities.
“The seeds we sow no longer flourish at the proper time”, says Benito. “You can see there are lakes and basins without water.
Benito plans for the dry and wet seasons, and plants crops according to knowledge that goes back generations. This expertise, based on the predictability of the weather, is designed to maximize the harvest. Lately, such systems are not working. The weather has become erratic, unpredictable, and extreme.
At the time, we were unaware that Benito’s story will be repeated. In each place we visit, in totally different cultures and different landscapes, we will hear eerily similar stories: Something is different. We are struggling to adapt.
The road between Vientiane and Savannakhet hugs the Mekong as the river meanders southwards. The journey by car should take 6 hours, but heavy rains cause the traffic to snarl, and it takes us 9 hours. Phouvanh Khammouk-on and Mani Saiyalath, both rice farmers, are waiting to meet us.
Saiyalath’s problem is a surfeit of water. This low-lying area of miles of rice paddies is especially susceptible to increased rainfall. Aside from ruining crops, recent floods left the community isolated. “The road to Kaengok was flooded…We had to use the boats, but we were afraid. They couldn’t deliver drinking water to us.”
There are 710 people in the village. When the village floods every year, there is no drinking water. They used to harvest two rice crops each year, but now, only one is possible.
Robert Wolimbwa Wambazu grows coffee in the foothills of Mount Elgon in western Uganda. The land here is rich and fertile.
But coffee is a highly sensitive crop. Small fluctuations in temperature and humidity, exactly of the kind associated with climate change, have a disproportionate effect on this most fickle of plants.
Robert points to a plant. “At times, the rains disappear and the coffee doesn’t get enough water. Then, when the rain does come, the coffee starts to drop and turns yellow – like this one.”
In Uganda, coffee is significant as a cash crop. Farmers supplement food grown for their own consumption with coffee. Revenue from its production helps pay for education and healthcare.
In recent years, however, there has been a steady drop in prices tied to variations in the quality of crops being produced. This drop in quality is linked to the effects of climate change – the variable weather is having a direct effect on Robert’s income.
The people I met number just four among more than 1 billion subsistence farmers around the world. But their stories are representative of similar problems across the globe. They are among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Many of us are fortunate not to live in circumstances where fluctuations in the weather can have devastating consequences. For these farmers, climate change is real, it is happening now.
Today marks 100 days until world leaders meet in Paris, France, to agree on global commitments to tackle climate change. I think of Benito, Khammouk-on, Saiyalath and Robert, and I am struck, viscerally, by the gravity and urgency of the task ahead.