African Anglicans look to reduce El Niño’s hunger footprint

Posted Apr 29, 2016

[Anglican Alliance] Anglican churches are prioritizing advocacy and practical responses to El Niño’s increasingly devastating impact on food security in the southern and central parts of Africa, says the Anglican Alliance’s facilitator in the region.

Famine and hunger have been stalking millions of people, notes June Nderitu, who is also on staff of Alliance partner the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA). Drought has been the culprit in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa, while heavy rainfall and floods have plagued other parts of the continent.

El Niño, a warming of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific, occurs roughly every three to seven years and can lead to unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.

Last December, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) underlined predictions by climatologists that the 2015‒2016 El Niño event would be stronger than that of 1997‒1998, currently the worst on record, and might persist until the second quarter of 2016.

June says that while various factors have contributed to food shortages in Africa over the years, the severity of this El Niño event means that 2016 is proving an especially tough year.

“Climate change, such as we’re observing in many areas in Africa, can make El Niño’s impact more severe, further disrupting agricultural production and livestock management, and damaging crops,” June notes.

Case study: Ethiopia

In recent years Ethiopia has experienced rapid economic growth amid heavy investment in infrastructure such as transportation and energy, yet 80 percent of the population still relies on rain-fed agriculture to survive.

Late last year FAO predicted that the number of people in Ethiopia needing food assistance would nearly double between November 2015 and March 2016 to 15.2 million.

“The current El Niño event has meant erratic rainfall and a very poor harvest. The people are now facing severe food shortages. The hunger that threatens is feared to be the worst seen in Ethiopia in decades,” June reports.

Aid agency Save the Children has warned that significant gains made in food security, education and health over recent years are now in jeopardy in some parts of the country.

Southern Africa

According to the World Food Programme, Southern Africa is in the grip of one of the strongest El Niño events of the last 50 years, with food insecurity levels in 2016 projected to rise to the highest since the food crisis in 2002-2003.

USAID reported early last month that poor weather conditions in Zimbabwe, including erratic rainfall and long dry spells, have contributed to large-scale crop failure and livestock deaths across the country. The agency estimated that 2.8 million rural Zimbabweans were facing food insecurity – 30 percent of the rural population.

Meanwhile South Africa’s maize (corn) output has seen a 30 percent drop in comparison to last year’s harvest, the smallest crop since 2007 and an alarming statistic for a staple grain.

The impacts of the dry conditions in Southern Africa are likely to last until 2017, June says.

Advocating to government

Nderitu notes that governments have been taking different steps to respond to the crushing cycle of drought/flooding and food shortage.

Ethiopia has put in place welfare for work initiatives, national food reserves and early warning systems in the local administrative units. In February Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency in drought-hit rural areas and has worked to increase its national grain reserve through the importation of maize. Appeals have been made to the international community for food aid.

At a policy level, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that a more coordinated approach towards achieving food security, coupled with drought preparedness, needs to be adopted, Nderitu says.

“While great strides have been made in feeding the populations, none of the African countries have sustainably reached the minimum threshold for annual budgetary allocations towards agricultural production,” she explains.

Nderitu thinks that Anglican leaders are in a prime position to conduct very focused and specific advocacy at different governmental levels to ensure no one in the country goes hungry.

“The churches know who is in need and they know that the effects of drought and flooding go beyond immediate hunger to malnutrition, poor growth and susceptibility to diseases. We must raise our voices together and advocate governments to implement policies and invest in agricultural production.”

Farming God’s way

The churches are also responding to growing food insecurity in very practical ways on the ground.

The Anglican Church of Tanzania is one province that is acting as part of an early warning system, urging action sooner rather than later to deal with looming food shortages. General Secretary the Rev. Canon Johnson Chinyong’ole has called for measures such as setting up seed banks so that fields can be planted when rains come and storing available food stocks for distribution when the crisis deepens and prices rise.

However, the Alliance’s Africa facilitator says the churches continue to agonize over the fact that longer-term food security on the continent remains mostly elusive, particularly in the face of climate change. As a result they are seeking practical, sustainable approaches to food production that attack hunger at the root.

One such approach has been to incorporate Biblical principles with conservation agriculture. “This is what is called ‘Farming God’s Way’,” June says.

Farming God’s Way (FGW) promotes what is called “zero cultivation”, a method that ensures soil is always covered by organic matter to maintain moisture and enhance fertility, thus requiring less rain. With FGW, the churches are bringing together groups of farmers for Bible study and training in conservation agriculture.

Jane Waithira, who was a long term practitioner of the FGW approach on her five-acre plot in the Diocese of Mount Kenya South, found that it transformed her livelihood like no other approach and made her mindful of her God-given role as a custodian and steward of the land.

Her household’s food security increased significantly after she learned how to farm God’s way.

“I once planted potatoes on a small patch of land during the dry season. In spite of the fact that it did not rain even once, I harvested almost four 90kg bags of potatoes. The dew alone was sufficient moisture.”

She appreciated as well that a variety of food crops could be grown using this form of conservation agriculture.

Soil-less farming

The practice of hydroponics, or soil-less farming, is also taking root in the churches.

In hydroponics, crops are suspended in nutrient-rich water rather than soil requiring regular rain or irrigation. The process recycles water, using only about 5 percent of the amount needed for crops on open land. Besides maximizing a limited resource, farmers are no longer dependent on increasingly irregular weather patterns.

Given the holistic nature of this approach, CAPA is encouraging theological training institutions to incorporate hydroponics in their ministerial formation programs. General Secretary Canon Grace Kaiso notes that students enriched by hydroponics training can share their learning wherever they are posted as clergy in a natural seeding effect.

El Niño adaptation tool

Another tool for the churches in Africa and other regions to address the effects of El Niño events on food security is coming from somewhat further afield, according to Anglican Alliance Relief and Programmes Manager Janice Proud.

The El Niño adaptation tool, a new addition to the pastors and disasters toolkit developed by Episcopal Relief & Development together with Anglican partner agencies, suggests steps churches can take to strengthen their communities’ resilience to possible El Niño-related impacts.

“I am excited about this addition to the Toolkit that looks at the impact of El Niño, based on the experience of churches and partners relating to drought, flooding, landslides and animal husbandry. The issue of El Niño effects has come up often in the last year, particularly with regard to preparing for drought impact such as in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa.”

Combining advocacy and practice

In the end, “food security [in the region] can only be achieved through joint efforts by all stakeholders including households, churches, governments and research institutions,” says Kaiso.

For the Rev. Andy Bowerman, Anglican Alliance co-executive director, advocacy and practical response are two sides of the same food security coin.

“In Southern and Central Africa there is a need to connect the advocates around climate justice and the momentum built since the UN climate summit COP21 last December with the practitioners engaged in providing immediate relief response to those without food or water.”

The time to act is now, according to Anglican Alliance Board of Trustees member Canon Delene Mark.

The director of Hope Africa says the coming months are crucial in mobilizing support from not just around the region but also in raising up prayer and practical action around the Communion.

The Alliance is poised to play its part in connecting these parts of the communion together, Bowerman affirms.

He reports that the Alliance is drawing together the key actors in this area for an online consultation and will also host a global webinar for churches and agencies to share their learning on food security tools.