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‘Weather whiplash’ cycles of floods & droughts imperil Nigerian farming

Plantain farm submerged in Otuoke, Bayelsa state, during the 2022 Nigerian floods. Image by Tarinipre Francis/Mongabay.

  • Farmers in Nigeria — and other regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa — are suffering huge losses due to extreme weather shifts in quick succession, a phenomenon that researchers refer to as “weather whiplash.”
  • Research shows a connection between poverty and weather whiplash, and farmers in poorer regions are five times more exposed to drought-downpour cycles than people in wealthier regions.
  • In April, the independent SciLine service for journalists hosted a webinar with agricultural scientists who discussed these extreme weather cycles, the impacts of climate change on agriculture in different regions and the need for homegrown approaches to support agriculture resilience.

Growers in Nigeria are suffering huge losses due to a disruption of farming seasons caused by unusual and extreme weather conditions.

Mallika Nocco, an assistant professor and extension specialist in agricultural water management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called this “weather whiplash,” a pattern in which extreme weather conditions are recorded in quick succession of one another — increased maximum temperatures followed by lower temperatures, heavy rainfalls and floods transitioned into dry spells and vice versa.

A map showing the European Commission Humanitarian Response (ECHO) to flooding in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad in 2022. Image by ERCC – Emergency Response Coordination Centre via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-4.0).

“This is what we mean by weather whiplash,” said Nocco, who was a panelist at an April 9 climate change and agriculture webinar organized by SciLine, a journalist research service through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“It’s a collision of these unexpected conditions and this rapid back-and-forth swing in weather. What that means, in terms of productivity … flooding, following drought, it can disrupt planting. It can disrupt water transfering cycles, any sort of preseason activities. Drought, obviously, can further stress areas that don’t have irrigation, or areas that have irrigation and limited water resources.

In an interview with Mongabay, Rosemary Obi, a farmer from Bayelsa in southern Nigeria, described the conditions Nocco explained as the current reality there. It is almost impossible to farm in Bayelsa now, she said.

“The rains come very late. We are experiencing very dry weather right now. Drought has become so severe and is often followed by heavy rains, which last for a day or two and destroy everything we’ve planted. This happens in the space of a week sometimes, and the cycle continues.”

Drought in northern Yobe state, Nigeria, 2023. Nigerians are experiencing alternating periods of drought and flooding, known as “weather whiplash.” Image by Hajjare via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

This pattern, which some studies refer to as the drought-flood cycle, is even worse for tropical and poorer regions like Nigeria, as they do not have the capacity to adapt, leading to compounded impacts over time.

Weather and poverty

A 2023 study on weather whiplash and poverty found that poorer populations are about five times more exposed to drought-downpour events. According to the research findings, “drought-to-downpour events do not appear to be occurring more frequently in most regions globally, just affecting regions with higher poverty rates more frequently, especially in African countries.”

With insufficient knowledge, an incredibly high cost of adaptation and a lack of infrastructure to manage extreme weather events, farmers in these regions can only wait the seasons out, Akintobi Olanrewaju, a Nigerian lecturer of agricultural extension and rural sociology, told Mongabay.

Two women in Nigeria holding children stand beside the remains of their family home, which was destroyed by flooding. Nigeria is experiencing cycles of floods and droughts that are disrupting people’s lives as well as their ability to farm. Image by Sadiq Mustapha via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What this means for farmers like Obi is a shortening of the planting cycle and a reduction in the quality and quantity of their yields because they are forced to harvest prematurely. She said planting seasons are changing. “We usually plant in November after the flood, but now, if you plant in that November, almost all your crops will die.”

Nigeria has two seasons, rainy and dry. Historically, the country experiences annual floods during its rainy seasons, which last from April to September, with planting seasons typically beginning as the dry season (December through March) approaches. In recent years, however, the rains have become more intense, pouring excessively in shorter intervals, while the drought period has lengthened, leaving growers uncertain about the planting season.

“This year, I didn’t plant early like I used to. I had to delay planting, wait a little longer for the rains to come. And most of the time, when we want to plant, like our cassava stems, we go with water. After tilling, we pour the water into the soil before putting the stem in so that the soil will be cool enough for the cassava to germinate. Cassavas are more resilient,” Obi told Mongabay.

“Immediately the cassava germinates; the possibility of it dying is limited. It won’t grow as it used to, but at least it will survive until the rain comes, unlike okra and potatoes,” she said.

“I didn’t have okra at all this year. All the okra I planted died. I watered as much as I could, but still, it didn’t change anything.”

A farmer in Bauchi state, Nigeria, woke to find his farm flooded with water in October 2022. Nigerians are experiencing “weather whiplash” with successive periods of extreme weather such as drought and flooding. Image by Sadiq Mustapha via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Obi said some farmers have begun planting again, but years of experience have taught her that planting okra after the early planting periods in November and December produces less yield. “It’s just leaves and no fruits. Some crops are affected more than others, especially those whose roots don’t grow deep into the soil, like potatoes, okra and vegetables; they are the worst-affected because the heat affects them more.”

This corresponds with comments by Courtney Leisner, an assistant professor from the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech in the U.S. who spoke during the SciLine webinar. Climate change will impact crops differently across regions, some more affected than others, she said.

For low-income countries, the cost of adaptation is high, and farmers like Obi rely on unrefined methods, which are often insufficient, to mitigate the effects of climate change and variable weather patterns on their produce.

“We are trying to keep as much grass as we can, unlike before, when we burned everything away. Now we are keeping the grasses on the field to keep the soil cooler and allow the crops to germinate. We’re just using our local knowledge to do this. No research has been made available to help us find more efficient methods,” Obi told Mongabay.

Solutions are expensive

In contrast, Olanrewaju noted there are indeed solutions, but they are often capital-intensive and stunt the capacity for local farmers to embrace them. A very sad reality, he said, because farmers are among the least likely to contribute to climate change — but they are also among the most vulnerable.

Like Nocco, he observed an increasing demand for water due to rising maximum temperatures and increased aridity, necessitating technologically advanced alternatives like irrigation and greenhouse farming.

However, with rural subsistence farmers being the largest contributors to agriculture in Nigeria — they constitute 70% of the population and produce 90% of the country’s food — these solutions are simply not accessible.

Nonetheless, Leisner noted a silver lining. She reckoned that through innovative and high-tech solutions like modern breeding and genetic engineering approaches, governments may collaborate with researchers and organizations to develop high-yielding, climate-resistant and stress-tolerant crops for distribution to farmers.

Olanrewaju said he agreed with Leisner. However, in light of criticism that followed the recent approval of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops for planting in Nigeria, he added that for initiatives like this to work, governments and organizations must work together to provide adequate information about the process and quality of such crops, along with the impact they will have on agriculture.

 

See related coverage:

Report calls for agroecological rethink of Africa’s food amid $61b industrial plan

Banner Image: Plantain farm submerged in Otuoke, Bayelsa state, during the 2022 Nigerian floods. Image by Tarinipre Francis/Mongabay.

Citation:

Zhang, B., Wang, S., Zscheischler, J., & Moradkhani, H. (2023). Higher exposure of poorer people to emerging weather whiplash in a warmer world. Geophysical Research Letters, 50(21). doi:10.1029/2023gl105640

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