How farmers can avoid this drought

Saturday September 11 2021
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A farmer in Lwengo District examines a wilting coffee tree under the on going drought. PHOTO/Michael J Ssali

By Michael J Ssali

For almost four months now, many parts in Uganda have not had sufficient rain to sustain proper growth of crops.

In such areas as the greater Masaka region (where currently thousands of smallholder farmers spend sleepless nights due to unexplained nocturnal murders) the rain suddenly stopped in mid-May.

Initially some coffee farmers welcomed the bright and warm weather since it was harvesting time for the crop which requires thorough drying under the sun. The country had received generally good amounts of rain for the past few years which had resulted in floods and destruction of many roads.

Withering crops 

Today in districts such as Lyantonde and Sembabule livestock farmers are really worried by lack of pasture and water. There was a poor harvest of crops such as maize, beans, groundnuts and other annual crops nearly all over the country due to failed rains.

Now because of the on-going severe drought most Robusta coffee farmers are seeing their crop wither. The banana plantations are also withering under the scorching sun reducing food production and incomes in thousands of banana farming households.

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Weather forecasts made by our meteorologists have proven worthless since in almost all cases it has not rained when they said it would rain particularly in areas along the shores of Lake Victoria.

Effects

When a prolonged drought of this nature occurs we must think of other effects that it causes beyond just the drying of crops and food insecurity. Some families have had to sell their livestock cheaply due to lack of pasture and water.

Some communities are now sharing their water sources with animals and there are health risks to contend with. There are environment degradation issues and conflicts between herdsmen and farmers over the use of dwindling streams and other water sources. Some farmers had taken agricultural loans from financial institutions and purchased farm inputs but they ultimately have no crops to sell.

Mr Charles Katamba, Programme Manager of Community Enterprises Development Organisation (CEDO) which works to reduce poverty and to promote food security and bean production among other crops in the greater Masaka region, has told Seeds of Gold: “The on-going drought is bound to greatly reduce the production of all annual and perennial crops in the region. There is going to be a big shortage of beans and maize as a result of the drought. Even in cases where some farmers have tried irrigation it is clear that rain is the best source of water for crop production. Majority of our farmers cannot afford irrigation equipment, not to talk about drying swamps that would provide the water. Even production of coffee, banana, sweet potato, Irish potato, cassava, ground nuts and vegetables is difficult under the current circumstances and we must prepare for hard times ahead.”

Delayed planning and planting

He went on to say that because of the prolonged drought the farmers have had to undergo delayed planning and planting.

“In the past farmers planted beans and maize around this time but they are almost a month late now. The ground is hard since it has not been raining for such a long time and it is difficult to dig any holes or to carry out any form of ground preparation. Such production challenges, by the way, also have a bearing on the quality of the crops that farmers are likely to produce. There are likely to be cases of aborting flowers. This is what usually takes place when some little rain falls and the crops flower but fail to sustain the flowers resulting in poor fruition and low yields,” he says.

Drought tolerant seeds 

He said irrigation is a good option but it is far beyond the capacity of most small scale farmers. His advice under the present circumstances is for farmers to be more cautious and buy stress and drought tolerant seeds prepared by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) and some seed companies.

CEDO itself in partnership with Naro supplies quick maturing seeds to farmers. “The farmers must also be careful before planting the seeds because upon seeing the first rains they might be tempted to plant all their seeds only to be disappointed a few days later by the rains disappearing again. So it would be prudent for the farmers to do what we refer to as staggered planting. When a farmer has got like 60 kilogrammes of beans or maize to plant it would be wise for him or her to plant only 20 kilogrammes to begin with, then 30 kilogrammes a week or so later and the 10 kilogrammes after some days,” he advises.

Climate change effects

Katamba blames the current drought on Climate Change which farmers must learn to live with. “Part of the problem was caused by the destruction of the natural forests in Kalangala District. Before their destruction we enjoyed convectional rain everywhere in Masaka region but it is no longer the case,” says Katamba.

Dr Andrew Kiggundu a researcher in NARO has said: “Part of the solution is for our policy makers to seriously consider the importance of biotechnology as an important strategy in climate change mitigation. Some crop seeds are bred to be quick maturing and drought tolerant. These are the seeds that farmers should go for. Seed technology is vital in sustaining agricultural production in these days of extreme weather conditions. Cassava is one of the crops we would depend on in times of food scarcity. The crop is facing extinction here in Uganda due to pestsPrices to go up

Unpredictable fluctuations in climate patterns always tend to disrupt agricultural production which further leads to hikes of commodity prices. A litre of milk in Masaka today costs Shs2,000 up from Shs1,000 some five months ago. When schools reopen there is likely to be a big shortage of beans and maize which may result in price hikes for the commodities.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO 2006), drought accounts for half of the worlds’ food emergencies annually. Our scientists with funding from the government and donor agencies have been developing biotechnological technologies to mitigate climate change. One example is Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). However our farmers cannot grow the drought tolerant and disease resistant varieties of maize because Uganda does not have the Biotechnology and Biosafety law in place. Maize is not just a major human food but it is also an important component of livestock feeds.

Apart from being drought tolerant and pest resistant, WEMA maize variety has 52 per cent yield advantage over ordinary maize that we are growing in Uganda with all the climatic challenges.  South Africa’s smallholder farmers were the first to benefit from growing WEMA maize but several other African countries have since taken up growing the maize variety, including Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

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