CHANGES in weather patterns have turned agriculture into a gamble with nature for Tanzanian farmers. Prolonged droughts and floods have made the lives of small-scale farmers, who don't have access to irrigation, extremely difficult.
In Tanzania, where the economy is largely driven by agriculture, the largely poor, rural population has become even more vulnerable.
According to the national Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), agriculture accounts for up to 60 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More than 80 percent of the population works in the sector, which makes up 60 percent of the country's exports.
A 2009 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) warns that Tanzania has two decades to adapt its agriculture to climate change or risk major dents in its GDP. Otherwise, GDP loss could amount to one percent within the first 20 years and rise to between 5 and 65 per cent over the next 75 years, says Muyeye Chambwera, who co-authored the report.
Climate change experts agree that the only way to prevent major economic impact is to change the way agriculture is done.
"The only way forward is to educate farmers on better farming practices, as most are still using outdated farming methods, while others are practicing farming in areas where rainfall is inadequate," said Marc Baker, executive director of Carbon Tanzania, a non-profit organisation that helps farmers in Arkaria village, 35 kilometres west of Arusha, to adapt to climate change.
The Tanzanian government has realised it needs to act quickly and initiated a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) that seeks to reduce green house gas emissions and help small-scale farmers adapt to new agricultural practices and technologies.
It plans to educate farmers on alternative practices, such as crop rotation, zero grazing and growing of crops that need little water, such as millet and sorghum. NAPA also promotes the planting of drought-resistant maize.
"NAPA's objective is to enhance the adaptive capacities of vulnerable communities, since Tanzania's economy is largely dependent on agriculture ," confirmed Abubakar Rajabu, permanent secretary in the Office of the Vice President.
Throughout the country, temperatures are likely to increase between two to four degrees Celsius by 2100, the MoA predicts. This seems a long time away, but it gives an indication that perennial crops, such as maize and beans, will eventually not be able to grow anymore and will have to be replaced with annual crops, such as millet and sorghum.
The production of maize, Tanzania's staple food, is expected to drop by a third within the next few decades, because the crop needs lots of water to grow, MoA officials further caution. In the drier, central parts of the country, the maize harvest could even decrease by up to 84 percent.
Last year's planting season is a good indicator that the predictions are coming true, perhaps even earlier than expected. Farmers in Iringa province told MoA officials that they harvested between three and five bags of maize per acre of land in 2009. This is a far cry from the average 15 to 18 bags harvested a few years ago.
Farmers have also observed the effects of changing rainfall patterns. "Maize is no longer doing very well," says Mama Mrema, a small-scale farmer from Arusha. "Now I have turned to growing other crops, such as cassava and sweet potatoes, that do not need a lot of rainfall, to make a living."
In another village, Mwitikilwa in Iringa province, villagers say there have been drastic changes in weather patterns during the last thirty years.
Dr. Emma Liwenga, a researcher at the Institute of Resource Assessment at the University of Dar-es-Salaam who has carried out research in the village in the past year, confirms that climate change has prevented farmers in Mwitikilwa from planting beans, coffee, peas and sweet potatoes. Her research also shows an increase in pests due to the increase in temperatures.
Farmers have been struggling to adjust to changing weather patterns. "The last decade has been really bad in terms of food production, especially in our village where we never used chemical fertilizers to grow our crops. We have been recording fewer harvests, because the dry spells have been longer and more severe while the rains have been irregular," says farmer Maimuna Hamadi.
The usually short rainfalls that occur between April and July have become sporadic, while temperatures between April and August have become abnormally high, the farmers say.
"We are no longer sure when to start preparing the land for planting or when to start planting. It is pretty much gambling with nature. The weather is no longer predictable as it was some 10 or 15 years ago," laments Mwanaisha Mwampamba, another farmer from Mwitikilwa.
"Sometimes the rains are not enough for crop production, while at other times, they are too much. They flood and destroy the crops," she adds. "If the situation persists, then most of us, who have small farms, will sink deeper into poverty, because we depend on agriculture to take care of our families."