Understanding the impact of climate change on remote agricultural communities to design for resilience
Insights from online workshops with IRC teams in Syria, Pakistan, Niger and South Sudan
How does a prolonged drought affect a farmer in a remote province in Pakistan, versus another in conflict-stricken Syria? What about the subsistence farmer in South Sudan or Niger, who has saved seeds for the next season, but ends up consuming those in times of need?
Remote rural farming communities are most vulnerable to extreme climatic events, such as prolonged droughts, pest and disease outbreaks, heavy recurrent rainfall and flooding. Farmers living in areas of conflict and insecurity are particularly affected. When displaced they lose access to fertile land, livestock, equipment and other assets essential for their survival.
How can we work with rural farming communities to build resilience to the devastating effects of climate change?
At the Airbel Impact Lab, we aim to work with communities to design solutions for the long-term. Emergency relief after a climate disaster brings critical short-term support. But in the long-term it is necessary to create agricultural systems that can be sustainable and resilient. Before we even start thinking about such solutions we need to better understand the complexity of this problem. To start, we decided to focus on one critical element of climate resilience: seed security. In other words: the farmers’ ability to access the seeds best suited to their environment for planting.
Analyzing complex problems in remote workshops
Seed security and climate change challenges cannot be addressed with a single solution, because they are systemic and complex. To understand the current state of agricultural systems in remote farming communities, IRC conducted seed security assessments in South Sudan, Niger, Pakistan and Syria. This revealed a combination of interconnected factors that contribute to the devastating impact of climate change. For example, the increased need for awareness and education in efficient land and water management, in order to cope with erratic weather patterns. The fact that traditional post-harvest processing practices and storage tools are no longer sufficient to protect crops from pests and diseases, resulting in huge losses for farmers. Financial instability on the other hand is limiting the farmers’ capacity to invest in agricultural improvements.
This was just a starting point. To better understand the context of each particular country and the scale of these issues, we organized and led four online design workshops with the respective country teams focusing on seed security. Based on the results of the seed security assessment and desk research, we prepared a set of problem statements following the same structure: context, who, what & impact.
Here is an example of a problem statement we used:
Context: In Pakistan, in small farming communities…
Who: Women who work in the farms…
What: Do not participate in purchase decisions that affect their work and have no access to other markets …
…they have limited access to improved seed varieties & agricultural technologies
…they don’t have access to information and knowledge to combat climate change
…they are reliant on growing and selling seed varieties that are preferred by other female farmers
We then discussed each problem statement in depth with the IRC teams in each country, in order to draw out contextual details and insights.
The problem of seed security
Although all four countries share similar challenges in achieving seed security, the local context highlights some notable differences. In Syria, the war has disrupted the entire seed value chain for commercial farming: agricultural infrastructure, supply and distribution chains have been heavily impacted across the country. The government no longer provides agricultural extension services, financial support, or loans to farmers. Research and seed multiplication centers are not functional. As a consequence, the seeds that farmers have access to have degenerated overtime. Seeds have lost their quality and productivity, resulting in loss of income for the farmers. To make matters worse, many farmers do not have access to sustainable irrigation systems and extended droughts threaten their livelihood. In the last season, 90% of wheat and barley farmers lost their main source of livelihood due to drought. The self-administration government in North East Syria provides some support to local farmers, but it lacks sufficient resources and expertise in agriculture.
In Niger and South Sudan, most people engaged in agriculture are subsistence farmers. Their livelihood relies on the seeds they save for the next season or buy from the local markets. When times are tough, farmers consume the seeds they had saved for the next season. And when a climate disaster ruins their entire crop, they rely on NGO support.
In South Sudan, there is an increasing dependency on NGO-supplied seeds — farmers get 50% of their seeds from NGOs and buy only 11% from the local market. NGO-provided seeds are “emergency aid” solutions, imported from other countries and are not very well adapted to local climatic conditions. It is quite often the case that the seed aid arrives too late for the planting season and then farmers lose their yield to flooding. The Unity State in South Sudan is particularly affected: in 2020 alone, more than 5,750 farmers in Panyijair lost all their seasonal crops to floods.
In Niger, the local markets do not provide a sufficient supply of good quality seeds, often due to the high amount of post-harvest losses, especially for legumes, such as cowpea. Traditional farming communities still use inefficient storage methods, so seeds are more susceptible to disease and pests. Farmers in remote areas typically have less awareness and access to improved storage solutions, like the triple bagging technique using PICs bags, a solution that is both safe and affordable.
In Pakistan, 70–80% of farmers are small-holder farmers, who rely on traditional farming practices and tools passed down through generations. Improved seeds that are more resilient to droughts are unaffordable for many of them. 95% of farmers throughout Pakistan also do not do a germination test. Even those who have access to good quality seeds, often suffer losses because of inefficient post-harvest processing and storage. Farmers rely on word of mouth for information and are often not aware of alternative techniques and innovations that can help them adapt to the changing climatic conditions. Most vulnerable of all are the ‘sharecroppers’, or farmers who rent their land, because they do not have any decision making power on the crop varieties or techniques to use. When there is a major climate disaster, like a prolonged drought or intense recurrent flooding, only landowners are eligible to receive subsidies from the government, leaving sharecroppers with no support.
Limited awareness and access are two sides of the same coin
It became clear that we cannot help farmers build resilience to climate change by focusing on only one aspect of a complex problem. Increasing awareness around potential new solutions is intertwined with increasing access to those, which often means strengthening farmers’ financial capacity. As our IRC team in Pakistan clearly identified, timely access to information can only be effective if farmers are willing to take risks to try new seed varieties and invest in agricultural improvements.
In South Sudan, the lack of access to improved seeds, tools and know-how is an even more difficult problem to tackle, as farmers face a plethora of diverse barriers. The lack of roads and basic infrastructure means they can’t travel to nearby communities and markets. Isolation also limits their awareness and access to agricultural training and demonstrations. Without financial support, farmers are not able to invest in good quality seeds — even in the rare occasion that these become available to them. Conflict and insecurity displace many farmers in South Sudan. Those who have lost their productive land, assets and markets are forced to move into marginal areas, like floodplains.
In Syria, the lack of access to good quality seeds is also interlinked to limited financial capacity. Farmers and agro dealers are both affected by inflation, unstable exchange rates and the absence of government support. All this is painting a very volatile financial picture — which means that traditional money lending practices are no longer viable. Farmers resort to borrowing cash from relatives and friends, to the extent that this is possible.
On a positive note, the practice of ‘warrantage’ in Niger (the equivalent of WRS= Warehouse Receipts System) enables some seed producers to save seed in order to sell later at a more favourable price. However, this practice is not very developed in the Diffa region, where vulnerable refugees and displaced farmers are located. In some areas, producers’ cooperatives have emerged, who tend to buy seed supplies in groups to share. This practice enables farmers with limited economic means to buy the small quantities that they can afford.
For long-term sustainability, the need to raise awareness around more resilient, better quality seed varieties goes hand in hand with the need to increase farmers’ financial capacity to buy them. To better understand how to design a system that supports this, we need to do a deep dive into past community-based initiatives, such as seed banks, in each country’s context and to learn from their successes and failures.
Creating opportunities for female farmers
In both Syria and Pakistan, while women farmers have very limited decision making and purchase power, they are active farmers. Female farmers mostly engage in manual labor (e.g. planting & harvesting) in small cultivations and gardens. It is not socially acceptable for women to operate machinery. Neither to engage in sales activities in the local market. This excludes women from gaining agricultural know-how and limits their climate change resilience. However, there are opportunities, at least at a small scale. For example, women do attend NGO-run field farmer schools. A recent IRC Agricultural Livelihoods program in Syria had more than 70% female participants. They successfully acquired new knowledge and skills in a range of diverse areas, such as modern irrigation methods, winter crop and mushroom cultivation and beekeeping.
The government of Pakistan recently approved a legislation for inheritance transfer which will enable women to own land. This might still not eliminate cultural barriers for women — since even those who currently own land do not practice farming themselves. But we believe that there is an opportunity to elevate women’s role in farming, for example, by training female farmers in seed germination tests and seed multiplication activities that are culturally acceptable.
South Sudan paints a different picture, with female farmers forming 67% of the local farmer population. Most vulnerable farmers are those who have lost their land because of conflict and insecurity and due to intense recurring flooding. Women and refugees are the groups that are most heavily impacted by climate change disasters. We need to understand how to better involve them in activities that can help develop their skills, climate change resilience, and decision making power.
The workshops gave us a good overview of the challenges farmers face in each country.
In our heads, we are already starting to formulate a range of interesting “How might we…” questions that could lead to a breadth of promising design ideas. How might we engage women farmers in starting and running a self-administered seed multiplication business in their community? How might we combine the ‘warrantage’ practice and PICS storage bags with the seed system, so that seed producers can secure income and are able to pay for affordable improved storage?
But wait… before we kick start a design process, we first need to understand the needs and barriers from the farmers’, seed producers and agro-dealers perspective. A key question that we need to answer is what needs to be in place for a community initiative to be self-sufficient and sustainable as a local business in the long term, without the support of the IRC or any NGOs. Our next step is to reach out to small-holder farmers — with the support of our country teams — to run a field study to be able to design the right solution for the right context.
We would like to thank the IRC country teams and Technical Advisors in Syria, Niger, Pakistan and South Sudan for their valuable inputs and support in this project.