Under the bright blue Eritrean sky, a farmer encourages oxen to stamp on piles of dried grass to help dislodge the seeds. Nearby, other farm workers are using pitchforks to do the same job, throwing the grass into the air in an age-old process known as winnowing.
It’s the harvest season in rural Eritrea, a fundamentally important time in a country where an estimated 80% of its population survive as subsistence farmers.
It’s also a period that is deeply woven into the passage of the seasons, a sequence around which much of the rest of life is planned out. But such regularity, formerly taken for granted over the centuries, is appearing increasingly threatened due to changing weather patterns.
At the end of last year, unexpected rains fell during October and November – normally the dry season, when crops are fully maturing after the traditional rainy season of July to September – resulting in farmers having to reap early and before the normal harvest period in January.
“Had they not reacted, or reacted based on the traditional harvest, they would probably [have] lost their harvest,” says Peter Smerdon of the World Food Programme (WFP).
During the past few years, Eritrea, like the rest of the Horn of Africa, has experienced fluctuating weather patterns, exacerbated by El Niño, the ocean-warming trend that is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.
Despite there being some scientific uncertainty about how the naturally occurring El Niño event and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other, scientific research suggests that global warming could be making this cyclical event occur more frequently and intensely.
During the past few years, Eritrea, like the rest of the Horn of Africa, has experienced fluctuating weather patterns, exacerbated by El Niño.
At the same time, climate change has a disproportionately worse impact on livelihoods in societies where many depend on the natural environment for their day-to-day needs.
In Eritrea, farmers mainly grow sorghum, maize and teff – a staple foodstuff in Eritrea (as well as in Ethiopia), particularly when turned into a grey flatbread called injera that often accompanies every meal. Such subsistence farmers are especially vulnerable to shifting weather patterns that can devastate food production and livelihoods.
Harvesting early can reduce the quality and amount of food a subsistence farmer has available during the lean season, which may result in humanitarian assistance being needed to prevent families from going hungry.
Increased climate variability, such as early or delayed onset of the growing season, or a shorter growing season or both, can also affect the development of crops and the availability of pasture for livestock, with implications for a household’s access to food, as well as undernutrition.
The thin line between what makes for a successful harvest and a bad one, and the vulnerability of the supportive farming eco-system, is a lesson well-known in Eritrea.
“It’s better to have locusts in November than rain,” runs an Eritrean proverb.
During the past few years, the Horn of Africa has seen a mixture of terrible droughts and unexpected rainfall – which following a drought can result in flash floods as the ground is so hard – a pattern that is being repeated all around the world.
“While working in Central America, East Africa, and the Middle East, I’ve always talked to elders, especially those in agriculture, and the message from them is consistent,” says Sam Wood of Save the Children in Ethiopia. “Weather patterns are getting less predictable and when rain comes, there is too much or too little.”
In addition to the challenges posed by El Niño, most of the world’s scientific community agrees that long-term significant changes in the earth’s climate system have occurred and are occurring more rapidly than in the past. Furthermore, continued emissions into the earth’s atmosphere are projected to cause more warming and increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible effects on every continent.
These include increasing temperatures, greater rainfall variability, with more frequent extremes, and other changes in the nature of seasonal rainfall – all of which threaten the agricultural backbone of countries like Eritrea, with far-reaching consequences.
“People in wealthier countries should be worried about the effects of climate change in the Horn of Africa,” says the WFP’s Challiss McDonough. “Climate change is one of the main drivers of global hunger, second only to conflict, so, for donor countries, investing in climate and disaster risk reduction makes economic sense – every $1 invested in climate risk management and disaster risk reduction can save up to $4 in humanitarian response.”
Climate change is one of the main drivers of global hunger, second only to conflict.
In addition, she notes, innovative measures such as establishing weather-risk insurance schemes, can draw in private-sector finance, which can reduce people’s dependency on humanitarian grant-funding.
“Climate change is happening so fast that humanitarian aid alone cannot keep up,” McDonough says. “That’s why it is vital to put more effort into climate risk reduction and disaster risk management.”
A symbol of loss and resilience
The Eritrean 5 nakfa banknote features a sycamore tree, which wields significant symbolism in Eritrea. Elders used to gather under these huge, often hundreds-of-years-old trees to discuss important community issues and laws.
But many were cut down during colonisation and war, while those that remain now have to contend with the effects of climate change, as do other parts of the country, including its coastline, with potential consequences inland.
“One impact of climate change in a coastal region is rising sea levels that impact lives along the coast and increase the likelihood of flooding or flood-related disaster, such as high tides that could wash out a crop, for example,” Smerdon says.
“Also, salt-water intrusion due to climate change can increase erosion and the salinity of soils and thereby damage soil content and the fertility of land.”
One impact of climate change in a coastal region is rising sea levels that impact lives along the coast and increase the likelihood of flooding or flood-related disaster.
In addition, Eritrea’s renowned and unspoiled coastline includes coral reefs, offering a potential boon for tourism – as long as they can survive in their present state. “Until a few years ago, this piece of sea was full of corals, but then last year they all died,” says an Eritrean diver near the port city of Massawa. “The temperature of the sea was too high.”
Local fishermen rely on the sea’s resources, trading in fish and shells for their livelihoods. But according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Global Warming, such small-scale fisheries in the world’s tropical regions, which are very dependent on habitats provided by coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass and kelp forests, are at a high risk from temperature increases.
Eritrea’s situation offers a microcosm of a much wider problem. Africa is a region where the influence of climate on production and livelihoods is strongest and most complex, says Unicef’s 2018 report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.
It explains that this stems from Africa’s vulnerability to climate shocks on dryland farming and pastoral rangeland that are the primary livelihood system for up to 70-80% of the rural population, as the system is heavily reliant on adequate rainfall.
Since gaining its independence in 1991, Eritrea has had tense relations with humanitarian agencies. Despite being poor, the country has remained a fiercely self-reliant nation and previously snubbed some international aid on the grounds of wanting to avoid a culture of dependence.
In July 2005, it asked the United States Agency for International Development to terminate its operations and leave the country. It continued expelling other international organisations from working within the country (the WFP did not operate there for a decade after 2006).
The country has remained a fiercely self-reliant nation and previously snubbed some international aid
Tensions only worsened with the imposition of UN sanctions – which included an arms embargo, an asset freeze, and a travel ban –which Eritrea blamed for driving it into isolation.
But the past few years have seen a thawing in tensions. In the middle of 2016, Eritrea allowed use of one of its ports for a food aid shipment to South Sudan, marking the first time the World Food Program has used food assistance operations in Eritrea since 2006.
And last year’s rapprochement with Ethiopia was followed by the lifting of those UN sanctions.
While tentative, some say the signs are that Eritrea is opening up and willing to engage more with the world, and hence may soon be more willing to re-engage with international agencies like the WFP that are so active in other countries in the Horn of Africa to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Such measures, McDonough explains, include deploying programmes and technology that reduce and manage climate and disaster risks, such as weather-index insurance, which provides pay-outs to smallholder farmers in the event of extreme weather events; forecast-based financing, which promotes early action to increase preparedness and reduce the impact of drought and flooding; and climate services that supply smallholders with climate information so they can plan for the next growing season and reduce crop losses when rainfall is poor.
“WFP assists people in all the countries in East Africa and the Horn to build their resilience in case of shocks, so families do not lose all their assets, such as livestock, and therefore require more costly longer-term assistance,” McDonough says.