Coping with climatic and economic change

Siri Eriksen, Ane Schjolden and Julie Silva discuss the linkages between climate change and economic vulnerability in southern Africa.

Siri Eriksen is a senior research fellow and Ane Schjolden is a research assistant at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo in Norway. Julie Silva is a doctoral student at Rutgers University in the United States.

Climate changeand economic vulnerability are global processes which have recently captured public attention. Both fundamentally impact production and consumption of goods and influence what is bought and sold. The two processes are intrinsically linked in shaping local level vulnerability, particularly in rural agricultural areas of developing countries.

Southern Africa exemplifies the need to study how climate variability and economic change interact within the development context.

Nations in southern Africa are experiencing dramatic economic reforms such as liberalization and privatization. At the same time, these areas rely heavily on agriculture, a sector greatly susceptible to climate change, for subsistence, employment and income. Despite this, climatic adaptation and economic change in developing countries have seldom been studied in conjunction.

This article explores the relationship between these two processes in southern Africa. It is based on ongoing research carried out at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO) and collaborating organizations on liberalization and climatic variability in southern Africa as well as the findings of doctoral research carried out in Kenya and Tanzania from 1997 to 1999.

For the purposes of this project, we define southern Africa as including eleven continental member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC): Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Climate and economic change in rural Africa

Approximately two-thirds of the African continent is comprised of drylands and is considered highly vulnerable to climate change and variability. As a predominately semi-arid tropical region, southern Africa is among the most drought-vulnerable regions in the world.

Climate variability and change can have considerable impacts on the hydrology of the region, and consequently on agricultural production. In semi-arid tropical regions, inter- and intra-annual variability of rainfall are considered key climatic elements that determine the success of agriculture. As a consequence of climatic variability, grain harvests in southern Africa are among the most unstable in the world.

In addition to the inherent variability in the African climate, the pattern of future climate is uncertain, in particular at the local scale. The possibilities for any large-scale adaptation programmes by developing country governments are few because of resource scarcity and immediate poverty and development problems that these countries already face. Efforts by those who feel the impacts of climatic changes, such as farmer households, are, therefore, crucial in ameliorating potential adverse impacts of climatic changes.

Responding to climate variability is of immediate concern to Africa given its variable climate and reliance on natural resources in economic activities. At the same time, global and national economic changes since the 1980s are altering the context in which farmers throughout southern Africa are dealing with climatic variability. Southern Africa is currently experiencing dramatic economic changes, including globalization of economic activity through liberalization of trade and investment and regional trade integration.

In addition, countries throughout southern Africa are implementing national-level economic policy changes in the form of structural adjustment measures. Such measures are typically aimed at controlling inflation, eliminating current account deficits, alleviating balance of payments problems due to currency overvaluation, and so forth. Among the adjustment measures that are most relevant for the agricultural sector are efforts towards liberalization and privatization of agricultural markets, resulting in a reduction of agricultural subsidies and trade barriers as well as an opening up for private marketing of agricultural products.

Economic globalization and liberalization have differential effects on vulnerability at several levels: within southern Africa; within a country; and between households in a village. To secure sustained economic growth and poverty alleviation in the face of climatic uncertainty, there is a need to put measures in place for adaptation within the context of economic change.

African farmer responses to climatic events have been seen as belonging to a different sphere from economic reform, involving diversification in informal sector activities rather than the specialization and economies of scale in the formal sector. As demonstrated by research in Kenya and Tanzania, a key feature in household responses to climatic events is increasing reliance on multiple income- generating activities.

Information regarding household activities during drought and non-drought periods was collected in two sites, in Mbitini Location, Kitui District, in Kenya and in Saweni sub-village, Same District, in Tanzania. Data from focus group interviews as well as 50 household interviews in each site suggest that households seek access to a source of income that can provide reliable and (relatively) substantial income to assume the role of the main activity when agricultural production fails.

These favoured strategies are mainly paid formal or informal employment locally or remittances from a family member or relative from such employment in urban areas. A minority of the households have access to such favoured activities and many households, therefore, resort to a multitude of activities that complement each other in securing food or income for the household. Most of these activities are informal and include the sale of forest products, collection of wild foods, local handicrafts, charcoal production, casual labour and assistance from relatives.

While many of the households’ responses to climate change (in terms of economic activities) operate in the informal sphere, they are shaped by the character of the formal economy and trade.

The need for cash, particularly to pay medical bills and school fees, as well as to buy food and other basic necessities, strongly influences the choice of small-scale activities undertaken by the household. Very few farmers can afford agricultural inputs such as fertilizer or improved seeds. Those who can afford such inputs as well as hiring labour to satisfy high labour inputs required for relatively higher agricultural production, or invest in local business activity, are normally better off than those who cannot. Thus, the need for cash shapes both coping strategies and local social and economic stratification.

Charcoal production represents an example of how national and international trade affects local climate responses. Charcoal is almost exclusively exported out of the producer area. The production increases dramatically with drought or crop failure. At times of drought, sacks of charcoal appear along roads which are plied by traders with trucks. The amount of traders, from nearby towns or the capital, can to a great extent influence the price that the farmer gets for this charcoal and thus his or her income.

Similarly, the recovery phase after a drought is also influenced by national and international trade. As farmers harvest, they sell part of their crop to repay debts incurred during the drought. The price of the crops varies with the amount of traders plying the area – which depends partly on the arrival of ships in the nearest port buying up maize for export.

© Siri Eriksen

Just how economic liberalization interacts with climatic variability to shape local vulnerability among farmers in southern Africa is the topic of a World Bank-sponsored investigation being undertaken at CICERO in collaboration with Rutgers University in the United States as well as collaborating institutions in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Namibia.

The project, a follow-up to a study of user responses to seasonal climate forecasts in southern Africa, is assessing how global and national economic changes have influenced the vulnerability of farmers in southern Africa to climatic variability. It is also exploring the ways in which these changes are influencing user responses to seasonal forecasts. From an operational perspective, the following question emerges: Are economic changes constraining or enhancing strategies for coping with climate variability?

In order to assess how climatic and economic changes affect farmers’ vulnerability in southern Africa, analyses are being carried out at three levels: 1) regional (southern Africa); 2) national level in selected countries; and 3) village level case studies. The coping strategies that farmers use in responding to climatic variability are being assessed through national and local case studies in Namibia, Tanzania and Mozambique, all pursuing distinct pathways within a globalizing world economy.

The macro-level analysis of southern Africa uses crop data, hydrological and soils data and gridded rainfall data, as well as basic socio-economic indicators at the national level, to assess vulnerability. Macro-level mapping analysis is used to identify broad economic and social trends in the context of liberalization and structural adjustment. National level indicators are selected to measure general economic performance, importance of the agricultural sector, existing infrastructure, educational attainment and health, and climate trends.

The goal of this geographic information systems analysis is to identify areas that exhibit a high concentration of disadvantages which make them more vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate variability, and the implications this has on their food security.

The three national-level case studies include a more detailed national analysis, using the most recent physical, social and economic data available at the province/district level. Indicators of economic globalization will be refined according to the individual countries’ policy responses to liberalization. Attention will also be paid to the differential effects of the spread of HIV/AIDS on vulnerability within a country. The main aim of this analysis is to identify how vulnerability may vary in space and over time in a country. Certain areas and groups may benefit from economic restructuring while other groups may become more vulnerable from this development.

For the micro-level case studies, one or two case studies are being conducted in each of the three countries to focus on key issues in the interaction between economic change and vulnerability to climate variability. The objective of the micro-level analysis component of the study is to gather basic information on how farmer responses to climatic variability are affected by economic changes. Local-level analyses attempt to capture data on informal institutions and networks and whether they mitigate vulnerability. These village-level studies involve surveys and interviews with farmers and agricultural institutions, focusing on economic factors that may facilitate or constrain actions in response to climate forecasts. Issues such as marketing networks, credit availability, commodity prices, storage facilities, draft power, and input procurements are emphasized, and the results analytically linked to the economic changes occurring at the macro scale.

Differential effects of economic changes in southern Africa

The economic changes brought by liberalization of trade and national economic policy reforms have differential effects throughout southern Africa as a region and within the countries of the region.

On the one hand, liberalization of trade may make certain countries and regions less vulnerable to climatic variability because they are able to make advanced preparation for the purchase of imported grain during years of predicted drought. On the other hand, liberalization may make some farmers more vulnerable by subjecting them to a volatile international market. Existing studies of the impacts of climatic variability on agricultural producers in the developing world typically do not take into account ongoing economic changes at a variety of scales.

Increased trade may contribute to reducing vulnerability in two ways. First, trade renders cash and increases the availability of a variety of crops. This may enhance robustness in time of climatic stress. In addition, a more efficient market could make it easier to acquire the inputs and seeds necessary to respond to seasonal forecasts.

© Siri Eriksen

One must, however, take into account the differing extent to which areas are reached by trade, and people’s differing ability to take advantage of increased trade. Rural areas that are physically isolated cannot get products to markets easily. Rural infrastructure in terms of roads and transport is poor in many areas. While government structures previously provided markets for agricultural produce as well as distribution of agricultural inputs, in most countries, farmers now have to find their own markets. This means that the full transportation cost is covered by farmers in terms of lower prices on agricultural produce and higher prices on inputs because few private traders are willing to ply inaccessible routes.

Liberalization measures are often selected based on the doctrine of comparative advantage, hence export-led growth is increasingly regarded as a feasible strategy for growth and development of countries throughout the African continent.

Because agriculture is the key industry in southern Africa, effects of liberalization measures will be felt profoundly within this sector. Potential impacts of liberalization for agriculture in southern Africa include shifts in cultivation patterns toward cash-crop exports, improved access to advanced technologies including drought-resistant seeds, and better access to credit for farmers.

Having said that, the prescribed structural adjustment measures of reducing government expenditures and devaluation of currency rates to reduce inflation have negatively influenced many farmers’ terms of trade, access to credit and employment opportunities. In particular, national-level price reforms eliminating price controls on agricultural commodities have allowed some farmers to earn higher profits, but, at the same time, have left many farmers vulnerable to both price instability and drought.

Liberalization has also been observed to increase people’s need for cash. This may be affecting vulnerability because people are increasingly dependent on accessing sources of cash compared to the past. A solution that has been promoted in African countries is to diversify local activities into increasingly commercial activities. This activity in itself sometimes contributes to increasing vulnerability, however, because they may increase cash and investment needs. Furthermore, these income sources, such as cash crops, may be more dependent on water inputs or high labour inputs, as well as being exposed to economic fluctuations and changes in market prices.

The challenge is, therefore, to find modes of diversification that do not increase vulnerability. We argue that diversification may have to look beyond the traditional sectoral approach, and incorporate and enhance local income-generating activities that may be both agricultural and non-agricultural.

It is also important to pay attention to the fact that most of the economic reforms target the formal sphere of the economy. At the same time, most households more easily access informal rather than formal activities, and their coping is often characterized by a lack of access to cash and sources of investment.

The Mbitini/Saweni study revealed that rural households face several problems in diversifying to cash crops or accessing seeds and other inputs required to prepare for and respond to drought. Women often do not have access to the capital, inputs, labour time and training necessary to joining a formal sector activity or engaging in improved seeds or cash cropping activity. Hence, the economic reforms will have a differential effect on vulnerability depending on how people are integrated into the formal economy.

Vulnerability and double exposure

The exposure of agriculture to both climatic variability and economic change has important policy repercussions within and beyond southern Africa.

Poverty alleviation programmes could be targeted towards the countries and sub-regions that are “double-exposed” to the negative impacts of both economic changes and climate variability. If it can be secured, a stronger and more resilient agricultural sector would free up some much-needed resources to address other problems, such as the AIDS epidemic that is spreading unchecked throughout many countries of southern Africa.

In conclusion, without a better understanding of vulnerability within the agricultural sector, prospects for feeding Africa’s growing population will continue to be a challenge for national and international communities.

Further information
Siri Eriksen, CICERO, PO Box 1129 Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway. Fax: +47-22-858751. Email: Web:
Ane Schjolden, CICERO, PO Box 1129 Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway. Fax: +47-22-858751. Email: Web:
Julie Silva, Department of Geography, Rutgers-The State University of New Jersey, 54 Joyce Kilmer Blvd. Piscataway, NJ 08854-8045, USA. Email: Web: