English Free Article | Policy | VOL. 11, ISSUE 65, March-April 2011 |

Food security and decentralisation in a changing climate an African case study

Climate change, driven by global warming, is expected to affect both supply and access to food. There will be more short term shocks from unpredictable weather events and changing temperature and water resources may result in longer term declines in yields. Even under conservative scenarios, agricultural yields may fall where crops are near their maximum temperature tolerance. Decreased or more unreliable rainfall could affect agriculture regardless of latitude, and there may be significant negative effects for small farmers and pastoralists who are weakly integrated into markets. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) Fourth Assessment Report considers that Africa is most at risk of increased hunger, both acute and chronic. Yet, studies in Africa and elsewhere show that farmers are adept at perceiving and interpreting changes in the weather and climate as these affect their rural livelihoods. In situations of increasing climatic marginality, farmer indigenous technical knowledge (ITK) can become a critical platform upon which informed choices can be made to safeguard rural livelihoods.

Food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (The challenge of global food sustainability, Food Policy (2011) 36(1)). Unfortunately, it is estimated that worldwide around 850 million people are chronically hungry, 2 billion lack food security intermittently and six million children presently die of hunger every year. Food insecurity is mainly associated with developing countries. Of the 800 million undernourished individuals worldwide, over 60 per cent are located in Asia and 28 per cent in the African continent. The eradication of extreme hunger and poverty is intrinsically linked to boosting agricultural productivity and food availability. Therefore, a challenge faced by the scientific community, such as biological technologies, is to transfer and develop bio-technological advances in order to create crop varieties and agricultural practices with the attributes to help alleviate hunger and poverty, and thus increase food security.

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We need to put these environmental changes in the context of governance changes taking place in most parts of the developing world. Many reformed governance structures have adopted decentralisation processes, which will have significant impacts on how local livelihoods are supported and promoted. Decentralisation, driven by the ideals of increasing efficiency and responsiveness of government programmes, enhancing citizens’ participation, community involvement and accountability, is not without its problems. For example, ‘patronage politics’ has arguably had more influence on decentralisation outcomes than on increases in participation and inclusiveness for the poor. This is exacerbated by the lack of power and finances available to local governments, which limits the possibilities of serving the poor more effectively. While there may be some examples of increasing participation by the poor through decentralisation, there is little evidence thus far that this has helped poverty reduction. However, the practical relevance for interveners such as local governments who aim to create new management structures, is to accept the difficulty of ‘designing’ such institutions, acknowledge the effects of social embeddedness (for example combining existing structures such as village farming associations with more formal management committees), and assess if these groups can become useful hybrids with local legitimacy and representation. A first step required, therefore, is a better understanding of how locally embedded structures interact with governance changes occurring as part of decentralisation.

This article is based on our experience, in Central Pokot (northern Kenya), a semi arid area prone to wide seasonal variations in rainfall pattern and distribution. The area already has a variable climate (low, but spatially/temporally unreliable, rainfall (500-1000 mm per annum) which appears to be changing to greater variability). Livelihoods range from mixed arable farming in the hills (with more reliable rainfall) and in the hill marginal zone where rivers are utilised for irrigation, to flood plain agriculture and nomadic and sedentary pastoralism in the lowlands. Central Pokot has long been designated as a food insecure district, and has suffered from periodic drought and famine, most recently in 2000-2001, 2006 and 2009. This highlights the vulnerability of Central Pokot communities, where, despite variable capacity to adapt, most have remained in poverty.

Observation over the past 20 years points to increasing land degradation in the hill marginal zone where population densities are greatest and livelihoods focus is most intense. Visual evidence of a general deterioration of natural vegetation, increasing evidence of sheetwash erosion and gully incision, progressive abandonment of more marginal farm plots and generally increased numbers of sheep and goats, suggests a situation of changing population dynamics within a framework of progressive dryland desertification. With rising regional temperatures (IPPC, 2007) leading to reduced soil moisture availability and perceived progressive land degradation in this area, rainfed agriculture is becoming increasingly marginal.

Furthermore, in recent years traditional furrow irrigation systems have been progressively abandoned in more marginal lower valley sites in favour of donor-funded gravity driven irrigation. Nomadic pastoralism has also been rendered more precarious by recent droughts and rainfall unreliability. Together with sporadic but persistent intertribal conflict and (generally) negative interventions by the government, pastoralists have been receiving lower prices for animals. Some have also settled to take up agriculture, though solely reliant on more riskyrainfed and floodplain agriculture. Thus, many traditional agricultural livelihoods are becoming progressively more marginalised by a combination of physical and human forces. Government and external aid agency intervention, particularly by the Dutch sponsored Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) programme, were particularly prolific in the area during the 1980s and 1990s. Yet Central Pokot has remained remote and poverty stricken.

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Various questions emerge from this case study: What are farmers’ perceptions of climate, its variability and the threats that increasing climatic irregularity will pose for their livelihoods? How can indigenous/traditional adaptation strategies cope with an uncertain future? How can food security be enhanced? What are local government perceptions of climate and its variability, and how do these perceptions feed into community development strategies? Can decentralised local government support local farmers in adapting to climatic changes and managing natural resources? What community management currently exists and what institutional support is available for vulnerable poor small farmers? Does the current community management framework adequately take into account traditional practices? Are services accessible, adequate, sustainable and equitable?

Until answers are found to these questions, the future remains uncertain for semi-arid areas, here and elsewhere, at a time of climatic and human uncertainty.

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