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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
West must take Africa's climate burden
Tadesse Dadi
VIEWPOINT
Tadesse Dadi

Helping poor farmers in Ethiopia adjust to the worst effects of climate change will minimise future human tragedies, argues Tadesse Dadi of Tearfund; and the West has a responsibility to provide that help.

Farmers building a terrace in southern Ethiopia (Image: Tearfund)
The impact of climate change is being faced every single year by peasant farmers in different parts of our country
Climate change may not yet be a problem for people in Europe, but here in Ethiopia its effects are being felt today by millions of ordinary men and women farmers.

Aside from the awful drought currently devastating parts of Somalia, southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, the impact of climate change is being faced every single year by peasant farmers in different parts of our country.

An 82-year-old farmer in northern Ethiopia, Mr Mengesha, recently told me that 30 years ago his harvest lasted his family for more than two years, but now erratic rains mean his sons barely harvest enough to last them seven months.

With the exception of a tiny and fortunate minority who have access to irrigation, most Ethiopian peasant farmers depend on rain to grow traditional varieties of crops.

These varieties have adapted over decades to the local climate and soil type. And planting and harvest are fine-tuned to very specific times of year.

So when rains arrive late and finish early, poor farmers can expect drastically reduced harvests for their families.

Mrs Suufee, a 62-year-old widow who lives in one of the river valleys in central Ethiopia, had her sorghum crop fail two years out of five.

She told me: "In recent years, the rainfall that used to start as early as February does not start until June. And then, when we expect the rains to continue until October, they stop in August."

The seasons have shrunk and there simply is not enough time to grow the crops.

Western ways

For one of Africa's poorest countries in which the majority of our 74 million people rely on rain, this spells regular disaster for us.

HAVE YOUR SAY
To Western societies falls the responsibility of supporting people like Mrs Suufee and Mr Mengesha as they struggle against the impacts of climate change

The truth is that climate change has affected people's ability to grow crops, rear livestock and find water to drink. Even malaria has become more and more life threatening in many places as it spreads to warming regions.

Many of the rural Ethiopians I meet do not directly associate the worst effects of climate change with human activities in richer countries. Yet it is precisely those Western activities which are principally behind the climate change they now experience in their daily lives.

Important international treaties have been formulated and ratified by some nations to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

Governments should sustain their commitment to the process and ensure that practical strategies get translated into local action.

In a nutshell, Western lifestyles are the principal cause of climate change; to Western societies falls the responsibility of supporting people like Mrs Suufee and Mr Mengesha as they struggle against its impacts.

Sharing responsibility

I think it is also important that governments and the people of developing nations take our share of responsibility in mitigating the effects of climate change.

TVs in shop (Image: AP)
Western lifestyles are blamed for Ethiopia's climate change
In Ethiopia deforestation and soil erosion had been allowed to go on at alarming rates for over half a century, if not more.

The nation has to wake up to the fact that it is destroying itself by letting its natural vegetation disappear, irrecoverably in some places.

We need more agricultural research which produces locally adaptable early maturing crops that can produce good harvests with variable rainfall patterns.

Appropriate disease, pest and weed control methods need to be passed on to farmers.

In the highlands where I recently visited, malaria is arriving for the first time due to a warming climate. People and cattle are falling sick.

Western support, targeted appropriately, could help develop new crop varieties able to withstand the harsher climates to come, and to spread the wisdom which our farmers will need.

Help with dignity

I do not wish to be pessimistic, but it is more realistic to assume that things are more likely to get worse in the future.

The BBC's Michael Buerk (Image: BBC)
British media, particularly the BBC, exposed the famine disaster in the 1970s and 1980s that triggered the massive humanitarian response to save lives.
The reason is that the population in poor countries is increasing at a rapid rate and there is a higher proportion of people that are vulnerable to disasters than in the past.

I would urge people in the UK, Europe and elsewhere to be informed about the issues of climate change, to lobby decision makers in their countries and to mobilise support for NGOs engaged in helping poor countries adjust to climate change.

They can also make changes in lifestyle that reduce wastage and promote the conservation of resources.

People in the UK have been among the first to reach out in the effort to save lives when disaster strikes in Ethiopia.

British media, particularly the BBC, exposed the famine disaster in the 1970s and 1980s that triggered the massive humanitarian response to save lives.

Now the media in Britain and other Western countries can help prevent further disaster by alerting the world to the climate crisis facing countries like Ethiopia, and by urging their governments and peoples to accept that their lifestyles are responsible for the crisis.

Supporting poor farmers to adjust to the worst effects of climate change will minimise the human tragedies that have haunted much of Africa during the last three to four decades.

Although charity is a good thing and has indeed saved millions of lives, supporting people to stand on their own feet is a more dignified way of reaching out to people before it is too late.

Tadesse Dadi is a programme support advisor for the charity Tearfund in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The Green Room is a series of environmental opinion articles running weekly on the BBC News website




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