Field Research To Assess Linkages Between Human Activities And Drought

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To help assess the linkages between human activities and drought in northwest Africa as well as the region's increasing vulnerability to drought, the authors organized an extensive field research project in Morocco during the early 1990s. A project team led by one of the authors (Bencherifa) intensively interviewed farmers about farming practices and drought-coping strategies. These interviews were conducted in three different regions of Morocco: the Chaouia (a subhumid region), the northeast, usually referred to as Maroc oriental (a semiarid region), and the Chichaoua (an arid region).

The research team surveyed a total of 335 households or production units. The survey consisted of a series of six questionnaire interviews, which were administered orally to the same household units over a period of nearly 2 years, from 1992 to 1994. The interview protocol was intended to capture information about dynamic responses of producers to specific climate conditions, including both drought and abundant rainfall. By coincidence, the survey covered periods of highly variable weather, including drought and higher-than-normal rainfall years.

In all three study areas, it quickly became clear that rainfall variability is well accounted for in production strategies. The historical backgrounds of the communities in these study areas provide, in effect, a reservoir of memories that allows drought to be regarded as a normal rather than exceptional event. Farmers expect periodic drought and plan for it in their production strategies.

However, the survey also revealed that traditional drought-coping strategies have been losing their effectiveness. Namely, the strategies have been weakened by increasing population pressure and more intensive use of agricultural land. In addition, increasing inequalities between producers (a result of the unequal penetration of market-oriented farming practices) have increased the vulnerability of the poorest farming households to the impacts of drought.

From this extensive field survey, the research team was able to make several generalizations, which can be extrapolated to northwest Africa as a whole:

1. Vulnerability to Drought Is Related to a Variety of Agronomic Factors Agronomic factors that help determine vulnerability to drought include the following: (a) The actual time of plowing and planting: These operations need to be keyed to the timing of the first fall rains in the October to November period. Farmers need to make basic decisions about when to plant, which entails risks. Farmers who achieve optimal timing in planting are less likely to be impacted by drought than farmers who plant either too early or too late, (b) The specific crops grown: Barley is the most drought resistant cereal crop— thus its domination in arid and semiarid conditions. Hard and soft wheat are more sensitive to shortfalls of precipitation, (c) The preceding land use : Fallow helps to mitigate the effects of drought because of the accumulation of soil moisture in fallowed fields, (d) The amount and type of labor inputs: Labor inputs allocated for preparation of soils (most importantly, animal traction versus modem machinery) have a major influence on vulnerability to drought, (e) The type of soil: Heavy soils are excellent agronomically when rainfall is above average. However, light soils have advantages during years of below-average rainfall.

2. Fallow Has a Critical Role within the Agropastoral System Fallowing is universally recognized by farmers to be a major determinant in increasing crop output. During the fallow year (as previously noted), fields not only accumulate soil moisture but also nitrogen, leading to increased yields when these fields are again cultivated. In addition, fallow is an essential part of livestock production. This is because farmers obtain fodder both from stubble remaining from the previous year's cultivation as well as from weeds that grow on fallowed fields. When fallow disappears from the agropastoral system due to demographic pressure, farmers become more vulnerable to drought. In all three regions, fallow has been steadily decreasing, as is generally true throughout northwest Africa.

3. Livestock Raising Is a Basic Drought-Coping Strategy Livestock play a key role in farmer survival strategies. Despite environmental and demographic differences, most of northwest Africa is characterized by a combination of animal herding and cultivation. However, agropastoral systems differ considerably in herd composition. Herds typically vary from cattle, to combined cattle and sheep, to sheep and goats. Differences are due both to the availability of arable land versus rangeland (in part, the result of different levels of population pressure) and the quality of the rangeland. Because of its comparatively high income-generating potential, livestock production is regarded as the key way to maximize farm incomes during years of adequate or abundant rainfall. However, this integration of livestock production and cultivation increasingly is becoming dysfunctional in the case of multiyear droughts. This is because it relies heavily on the use of by-products from cultivation for animal fodder (hay, straw, stubble, and weeds from fields in fallow). Available fodder has largely disappeared from most farms following a single year of drought. Because of population pressure and the conversion of higher-quality rangeland to cultivation, northwest Africa's agropastoral system has become increasingly vulnerable to drought.


4. Farmers Employ a Traditional Suite of Other Strategies to Cope with Drought These include the following: (a) Grain and animal fodder are stockpiled using a variety of traditional storage systems, including conical stacks of hay and underground grain storage pits. Stockpiling grain and fodder is an effective way to buffer drought's impacts, particularly if it does not continue for more than a single year, (b) Farmers reduce their herd size to a level that can be sustained through the drought. However, even in severe drought conditions, they attempt to maintain a small herd of breeding stock. This core herd allows a new start once rainy conditions return, (c) Farmers often adopt a relatively mobile, pastoral-nomadic stockraising pattern to seek grazing resources elsewhere if they run out of fodder on their own farms, (d) Farmers take advantage of rainfall whenever it occurs. If the normal cereal crops cannot be planted in fall or early winter because of drought, and if late-season rain occurs, they plant late crops such as chickpeas or lentils.

During the early 1990s in Morocco, farmers progressively adopted new drought-coping strategies, which can be found generally in northwest Africa. These included the following: (a) Farmers almost universally adopted mechanization wherever possible. When farm income did not allow them to purchase their own farm machinery, they hired plowing services. Mechanization of plowing, in particular, has become a general drought-coping strategy because it allows both for rapid planting following the first rains as well as for quick response to rainfall. For example, in case of late spring rain after previously planted crops have failed, modern farm machinery allows for rapid replanting. Mechanization also dramatically increases farm output during favorable rainfall years by allowing farmers to maximize the cultivated area. This increased production can be stockpiled as a hedge against future drought. However, mechanization also has increased the negative impacts of drought. In short, it has helped agricultural production become a "high risks, high rewards" game, (b) Farmers have adopted fertilizer use as a way to increase production during good years to stockpile grain and fodder in preparation for future drought, (c) Farmers have adopted intensive livestock raising in stables as a way to increase farm income, (d) Wherever possible, farmers have attempted to develop irrigation through digging of new wells, use of motor pumping, and use of diversion devices to concentrate runoff to their plots, (e) Farm families increasingly rely on off-farm income to supplement their farming resources. This strategy included temporary migration to urban areas by one or more family members during drought years. In the severe 3-year drought in the Chichaoua in Morocco during the early 1990s, around 80% of a typical family's resources came from outside the farm.

5. Socioeconomic Impacts of Drought Are Related to Its Duration The duration of drought is a major determinant of its socioeconomic impacts. One year of drought following a normal rainfall year has far fewer negative impacts at the household level than is commonly assumed. This is because of the effectiveness of traditional drought-coping strategies, including stockpiling of grain and fodder during higher-than-normal rainfall years. The general calculation among the farmers surveyed is that "good years cover the bad years." Only when drought lasts more than a single year do its effects generally become critical at the household level. When drought lasts more than a single year, stockpiles of grain and fodder become exhausted, throwing household economies into crisis and threatening starvation for both livestock and people.

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