Drought threatens livelihood of a farming population

Farmers urged to plant drought-resistant crops

By Sanna Camara

Demba Ceesay, a farmer from Jarumeh Kuta village, Central River Region of The Gambia sits on a white plastic chair just outside his nephew’s house in Faji Kunda, Gambia’s urban municipality. He has travelled over 300 kilometers to see his nephew in the city.

After nearly three months of rainy season, crops are fiding it difficult to grow due to lack of rains Photo: Sanna Camara

With prayer bids in hand, he counts his prayers silently and suddenly stops, to answer a call on his Samsung GalaxySIII cell phone. It was his brother calling from the village and talking about a lot of things. Among them the news of rains that came on the day. It has been the heaviest rains for the past two-and-a-half months.

“Alhamdulillah” (meaning ‘Praise be to God’) he hollered. This is perhaps the best news he’s received in a long time since he planted his over 6-hectare farmland with beans and pumpkin. This is an unusual rainy season for him. He mostly farms maize and groundnut on the same farmland for many decades. But this years, prospects for that crop looks bleak.

80 per cent dependent on agriculture

Groundnuts are the main cash crop of The Gambia. The country is primarily an agricultural country with 80 percent of the 1.8 million population depending on agriculture for its food and cash income. The farming economy is the only means of income creation for the majority of rural families, most whom (about half of the population, 78 per cent of this is living in the rural area) live below the poverty line.

For a long time in history, august is the month that brings most rainfall than any other in the four-month rainy season. The country’s producers have to cultivate their food and cash crops within this period to sustain themselves for the eight other months. This year has been different.

Since April and early May of the year when farmlands have been cleared, farmers prepared to sow seeds of their crops. A few rains hit the soil. Without proper advice from meteorological experts, many who rushed to sow early crops like maize and groundnut were disappointed as many weeks followed before another rain came again.

The farming economy is the only means of income creation for the majority of rural families, most whom live below the poverty line. Photo: Sanna Camara

Agriculture raises income levels, improve food security, reduces poverty

The agricultural sector is considered the most important sector of the Gambian economy, contributing 32% of the gross domestic product. It provides employment and income for 80% of the population, and accounting for 70% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. It remains the prime sector to raise income levels, for investments, to improve food security and reduce levels of poverty.

The old man Demba Ceesay from the Jarumeh Kuto village is not the only one who will jubilate at the news of rains that hit the fields in their region this week. Baboucarr Komma, a young man who works for a GSM company as a sales agent, along with his brother who runs a cyber café in the city, left for the village on an annual leave over a month ago. They went to his village to help their parents grow their over -hectare maize farmland.

“We have used our seed store’s last content to sow the farmland and the rain is refusing to come. We are expecting the worse farming season this year,” he said, when contacted on how the farming has been faring in the village.

The general feeling around the country

This has been the general feeling around the country. Even in the city, where farming activity is minimal, the absence of rains is being seriously felt. Temperatures are going high each day. Sleeping in cement blocked, iron-corrugated roof buildings, which is the popular construction in this part of the country, is becoming so uncomfortable.

Climate change experts say the heat that is produced during the day because of the sun, is released at night. “As a result, it has become booming season for businesses selling fans ad air conditioners. More people, particularly the working class, are buying fans these days to offset the heat at night,” an expert said.

At a store on Kairaba Avenue, Gambia’s version of ‘Wall Street’, a fan assembling technician confessed that he has “been assembling thrice more fans than any other time in the year”. The percentage who uses air conditioner in their rooms is small compared to those that use fans.

Crops and vegetation around the country

Just like the crops, the vegetation are partially green, which impacts on the free-roaming livestock Photo: Sanna Camara

Travelling on the Southern Gambia, one can observe that crops are faring a little fairly, just like the vegetation are partially green between Brikama and Sibanor in the West Coast Region,  a peri-urban set-up just outside the urban Gambia.

From Sibanor to Kalagi, it is sparse, “not very good – you can hardly see any vegetation growing”, was how one traveler described it. A situation that will impact the livestock… “A lot of these livestock are losing weight due to lack of forage,” said Alieu Bah, a farmer whose family owned tens of cattle in the area.

The worst is actually covering Kiang and Jarras, where little farming activity is going on. “One can hardly see evidence of rainfall; it’s like you are in a dry season,” a source said. From Pakaliba to Brikama ba, is a similar situation between Brikama and Sibanor in the West Coast Region.

From Brikamaba to Basse is the best situation on the South bank of the River Gambia. A lot of the maize and sorghum crops are doing very well. In some other places, you can see groundnuts growing and they are doing very well too.

Declaring a crop failure due to drought

In the meantime, the government fearing a backlash from the popularised ‘Vision 2016’ food security campaign, is afraid of telling farmers that drought is settling in. Farmers waited, and waited and waited for such news from the government. It never came, and time is not waiting either.

A diplomatic source told Gambia Beat that they have been constantly asking government if they can tap into their emergency funds to help provide food aid to farmers. But this can only be done if the government declares a crop failure season, which they are not willing to do.

Nonetheless, the civil society is not waiting any longer. Dr Sidat K Yaffa, an agricultural and environmental science specialist who runs a weekly radio talk show “Let’s talk agriculture’ has begun speaking on the issue. Even though his programme has a limited frequency to reach out countrywide.

“A lot of these livestock are losing weight due to lack of forage,” said Alieu Bah, a farmer whose family owned tens of cattle in the area. Photo: Sanna Camara

Planting drought-resistant, early maturing crops

Dr. Yaffa  cityeral feeling around te cuntry.to come. re d with is brtheruilate at the the news of rains that hot the fields in the reg, who is also a lecturer at the University of The Gambia has adviced farmers to brace up for imminent drought season. Famers he said, should consider planting drought-resistant, early maturing crops, along with livestock fattening to help them sustain their livelihoods in the next two years.

He said the fact that rains are coming “very late and very little countrywide…. means drought will kick-in. So that’s a major problem that faces Gambian producers, Gambian farmers and the population at large.”

“Lack of rain situation is a reality, and it is going to stay with us for a long time coming. So everybody, regardless of your profession is going to be affected – it cuts across all sectors of the Gambian economy…,” he posited, adding that the country is facing an imminent drought situation right now. Its climate change induced.

He said if one looks at the FAO Report, among others, they are saying that drought is very imminent in the Sahel region this 2014 -2015 cropping seasons: “Meaning, we are not going to have enough rains to support our major crops we grow in this country… crops like sorghum and millet, etc.”

According to him, country needs to think of something else that is going to help the population go through this drought situation. “I know it is late for some of the crops to be planted because of some physiological conditions that they have to go through. Without enough moisture, that is going to be impossible,” he explained.



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