Our last discussion of gender and agricultural water management brought the many tensions surrounding long term water resource availability Africa to the forefront of my mind – where it stayed until World Water Day which fell on Saturday March 22. Wading through the ocean of literature that came through my inbox in the week that followed, I was struck by how powerful water as a natural element truly is.
Illustration of Poseidon from HQWallBase- Mythical King of the Seas & Chief patron of Corinth, and Plato’s Atlantis.
From its divinely assigned role as primary sustainer of human life from as early as the womb, to that of the lifelong preserver of even the tiniest living cell, it is clear that the absence of this fundamental building block of life invariably results in a descent towards a sometimes slow but always certain demise. Water is at once a powerful life-giving force, and a swift agent of destruction, and we are powerless to prevent it from exercising its will once its mind is made up.
One of my best loved bible stories has always been the account of Noah and the flood.
“Genesis 7:11 – The Flood” from Stories of Genesis (roof of Sistine Chapel) by Michelangelo.
While the Bible is chock-full of incredible demonstrations of God’s great love for humanity, I find a special comfort in the specific knowledge that no matter how dire the latest UN Climate Change Report is, that story assures me of the existence of a gentleman’s agreement between my kin and the Supreme Ruler of the known universe; guaranteeing the planet’s preservation in known perpetuity. That being said however, (and whether you, dear readers perceive yourselves to be party to this agreement or have absolutely no belief in the existence of this a Supreme Being I speak of), it is undeniable to anyone that hasn’t spent the last few years, or even the last annual turn of the seasons in some alternate galaxy, that agreement or no agreement, the elements are at war with mankind, and even though we have been promised a stay of complete obliteration, and we are experiencing first-hand a major shift in the atmosphere.
Climate change is a phrase that has been bandied about for many years now, and in the not too distant past, discussion of the topic was greeted with thoughtful skepticism at best or scornful, derisive dismissal at worst. More recent responses however, have shifted towards the former and even further into scientifically proven acceptance of its more worrisome and imminent impacts on our world. Climate change “refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Shifts in the status quo may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings such as modulations of the solar cycles, volcanic eruptions, and persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use. It can be attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and/or natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods”1 i.e. climate change can occur as a result of human activities altering the atmospheric composition, and climate variability attributable to natural causes.
Climate change impacts “refer to the effects of climate change on natural and human systems. It primarily refers to the effects of extreme weather, climate events and climate change on natural and human systems. Impacts generally refer to effects on lives, livelihoods, health, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures, services, and infrastructure due to the interaction of climate changes or hazardous climate events occurring within a specific time period and the vulnerability of an exposed society or system. Impacts are also referred to as consequences and outcomes. These impacts of climate change on geophysical systems, including floods, droughts, and sea-level rise, are a subset of impacts called physical impacts”1.
Climate Change Vulnerability in Africa – Delphine Digout, Revised by Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP / GRID-Arendal (click here for larger image)
The occurrence of floods in particular have been a singularly commonplace impact of climate change in Sub-Saharan and Northern Africa. Mozambique in 2000 was hit by heavy rains and a cyclone that covered most of the country with water for over 3 weeks and killed thousands. 2007 in Mozambique brought with it a similar disaster that displaced over 120 thousand people. 2008 brought floods to Namibia and Benin; displacing hundreds of thousands. The Nyabugogo and Mwogo Rivers in Rwanda burst their banks in 2010 and 2011 causing major economic damage. Nigerian cities have often been the sites of large-scale floods, but none have been quite as destructive as those that occurred in 2012 and 2013 which affected both Nigeria and her neighbor Cameroun. Relief Web reports in July 2013 note that these floods affected 35,026 people in 18 states. Stories of large-scale flooding incidents, both old and new abound across the Continent, but for the sake of efficiency, our discussion will focus on the region of Sudan where flash floods have become an issue of particular concern for climate change and agricultural water management experts, especially in the wake of the series of large-scale flood disasters which occurred in 2003, 2007 and most recently in August of 2013 when Sudan was hit with devastating flash floods that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
First, let me provide a small general overview of how floods can potentially impact agricultural productivity.
Flooding in our discussion area is most often perennial flooding caused by heavy rainfall and/or overflow of river banks. Crop cultivation in wet and poorly drained soil can be quite difficult except in very few exceptional cases. Heavy rainfall or bank overflow accompanied by flooding not only kills woody and herbaceous plants, but significantly affects plant development. The ability for plant roots to tolerate long period of submersion in flood water depends on the period of year the flood event occurred, duration of the flood event, species sensitivity to flooding and type of soil involved2.
The Impact of Flooding Stress on Plants and Crops – Prof. Michael B. Jackson; School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
Floods also remove a significant amount of topsoil over large areas of farm land usually by way of sheet erosion. This has serious consequences for agricultural productivity as topsoil is the portion of the soil with the highest levels of organic matter and nutrients, and it generally has the most optimal structure3. Furthermore, excessive soil moisture causes a decrease in soil oxygen levels which impedes proper root respiration. Besides the outright killing of submerged branches and foliage, many plants roots are intolerant to long term submersion, and reduced levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane hydrogen and nitrogen gas around the roots cause them to suffocate and die. Toxic compounds such as ethanol and hydrogen sulphide, tend to build up in saturated soils. Photosynthesis is inhibited and plant growth slows or even stops2.
Recent flooding triggered by heavy rains in the Sudan have caused a great deal of destruction in at least 8 states in the region, and smallholder farming communities in the Gash Delta of Kassala State of Eastern Sudan, have been one of the most affected. In an effort to help these farming communities move beyond short-term damage control measures to a more systematic system of warning and prevention against flood crop damage, hydrologists and remote sensing specialists, have come up with a system through which poor farmers can access real-time information which can be easily exchanged and applied to farming strategy as a means of protecting against flood risk. Using smart ICT in the form of cell-phones backed up by the web for example, experts are now able to communicate with farmers and provide quick, real time information on imminent flood events and best practices for flood water management for agricultural production4.
But, before we go into the specifics of the application, let us take a trip to The Sudan.
Next Up: An App for an Ark…Smart ICT for Farmer Flood Management in East Sudan – Part II