Of rats, stars and climate change

Villagers in Sudan's North Kordofan region are encouraged to invest in livestock as an alternate source of livelihood.
(Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

The days are hot and long in Sudan's arid Northern Kordofan State, between North Darfur and Khartoum, where the farmers say droughts have become more intense and frequent in the past few decades as they sip hot chai in Gereigikh village, about 100km northeast of the state capital, El Obeid.

Their village was one of 17 in the drought-prone region whose residents were helped to adapt to climate change over a period of six years (1994-2000) in a project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a 178-member international financing body, and the United Nations Development Programme - the only such project funded by the GEF in Africa.

The farmers, seated on mats thrown on the hot sand under the burning sun, mull over their understanding of climate change, occasionally breaking into toothy grins. Many lived through the major droughts in 1984 and 1992; older residents also remember the drought of 1976.

"While they might not know what the term 'climate change' means, they know the climate has changed over the years, and eight years later [since the project] they have become resilient enough to face anything," said Abdul Rahim Ali, coordinator of the Sudanese Environmental Conservation Society (SECS) in the region.

Farmers in this region have traditionally relied on rats and the position and brightness of certain stars in the sky to forecast droughts. "When we see the rats gathering food and hiding it in their nests we know there is a drought coming," said Ad-Dukhri Al-Sayed, a community leader in Gereigikh.

In a time-honoured tradition, the farmers followed suit, burying harvests of watermelons - an important source of water for their families and livestock during summer - and their staple grains, sorghum and millet, in storage pits in the ground.

"Drought episodes have increased in both intensity and duration," said Balgis Osman-Elasha, a senior researcher with the Sudanese government's Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources.

Osman-Elasha, one of the lead authors of a report on adaptation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said rainfall in the Sahel region had declined since the late 1960s: between 1961 and 1998 Sudan was affected by droughts of varying severity, and during this period there were also localised droughts in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1993, mainly in western Sudan (Kordofan and Darfur) and parts of central Sudan.

But the drought of 1980-84, the most severe in the Sahel region, saw family and tribal structures, and traditional practices of resource management and land tenure, break down. "Sections of the country were almost emptied of inhabitants as thousands of people migrated from their villages to refugee camps around towns and cities," said Osman-Elasha.

According to the UN, the 1984 drought affected 8.4 million people in Sudan, and seven years later another drought hit 8.6 million.

''When we see the rats gathering food and hiding it in their nests we know there is a drought coming''

Learning new adaptation tricks

Gereigikh's farmers say they have continued storing food underground for the lean season, but since the project they have learnt a few more things about survival, and how to take steps to relieve pressure on the fragile ecosystem and take care of the marginal land available for agriculture.

"During the life of the project, the farmers in the participating villages were convinced not to expand horizontally but to concentrate on farming on small patches of land to prevent cutting down trees," said Ahmed Hanafi, who managed the project for the ministry of agriculture for six years.

Villages were asked to allocate a piece of land for grazing only for three to four years to help rejuvenate the soil and maintain a green cover. The 17 villages managed to set aside 418 hectares in six years and have continued to maintain the rangeland. Drought-resistant species were replanted on the grazing land and helped improve the quality of meat and milk, Hanafi said.

The villagers thought the green cover had also had an impact on the ecosystem. "We notice that the rains now start earlier, in June instead of July, and stay longer, until October instead of September," remarked Salih Babkar, the mayor of Gereigikh.

It has been more difficult to dissuade them from using wood and to opt instead for mud to construct their huts. Each wooden hut consumes nine trees, and takes another four to five for maintenance every year.

"After the 1984 drought, laws were passed against cutting down trees in Sudan," said the SECS's Rahim Ali. "People have to buy the wood, which is very expensive - it can cost about $75 to construct three huts" - but a truckload of mud, which can build a room, costs $25, so they only have to buy wood for the roof.

During the course of the project people were not allowed to cut trees, and if anyone did they were fined or sentenced to community labour like building a school wall.

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Patches of green allocated for grazing to help rejuvenate the soil

Money - the sugar-coating

A feature of the project was the Village Development Committee, which provided villagers with credit to diversify their livelihoods, like keeping livestock and growing vegetables fed by water pumps; women could obtain loans to set up small businesses selling home made cheese and pasta.

The loan schemes were actually the "sugar-coating" to make the community more receptive to the idea of conserving the ecosystem, according to Issam Haj Al-Tahir, the project's community development officer.

Funding for the credit scheme dried up when the project ended, "but the villagers seem to have caught on to the idea of sourcing loans through the Village Development Committees," said Hassan Faradi, and loans are available under Sharia, the Islamic code of law, so the committees do not charge interest.

SECS's Rahim Ali said the concept had proved infectious. Villages outside the project have also set up development committees, who raise funds by renting out water-fed gardens to the community so they can grow vegetables and cash crops like sesame and hibiscus.

Villagers were also encouraged to invest in goats and sheep as a safety net to tide them over lean seasons or droughts. "The practice has continued; people continue to purchase livestock or other assets through their development committees."

A new drought-resistant crop

In the 1990s, the early years of the project, the 17 villages were also introduced to guar or cluster bean, a drought-resistant legume grown in India's arid regions. The legume can eaten, but is more important as the source of guar gum, which is used in dairy products like ice cream and as a stabiliser in cheese and cold-meat processing.

"The farmers discovered that the beans were not only a source of revenue, but the plant was an excellent fodder," said Hanafi. Unfortunately, they have been less receptive to drought-resistant varieties of millet and sorghum, he added. "They just did not develop a taste for it."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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