On her farms in Dambare in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Kano, she planted corn, groundnut, white beans and soybeans at the onset of the dry season. But the crops withered after Challawa river, her farms’ source of water, diminished.
“I barely got one kilo from the white beans,” Auwalu says. “I could harvest only two bags of corn, which is the worst harvest I have ever had since I started farming.”
Dry season farming has been a main source of income for Auwalu who started farming at 16 when she got married and inherited about eight hectares from her husband.
She stopped dry season farming after the poor harvest and now depends on the paltry monthly allowance from her husband who has two other wives. She also gets a weekly supply of rice from her husband’s provision store to feed her children.
“They always grumble about eating rice every day, but that is all I can afford,” Auwalu says.
In Kano and elsewhere around the world, rising temperature is shrinking surface waters and leading to poor crop yields, forcing smallholder farmers to the brink of malnutrition.
Hotter climate causes an unpredictable yield for cereals, especially corn, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
And by 2030, more than 130 million people across the world will be pushed into extreme poverty because of climate change, according to a World Bank study.
In 2020, the year Auwalu’s crops withered, Nigeria’s corn production fell by 13 per cent, from a projected 11.5 million tonnes to nine million tonnes, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Drought outbreaks are not new in places like Kano but scientists have found that global warming has exacerbated drought events.
The average temperature in the state has increased by about 2 degrees celsius from 25.9 degrees celsius in the 1980s, according to a study by scientists at the Bayero University, Kano.
The World Bank Climate portal shows that Nigeria’s yearly rainfall from 1941 to 2000 dropped by 8 mm, leading to decreased rain, higher temperatures and reduced soil moisture.
Elsewhere, more than 2500 miles away, Tunisian farmers are facing hardship over depleting water for their crops as the country has witnessed about seven droughts that have dried up surface waters in the past 10 years.
“We have to go deeper and deeper to find water,” says Chaker Sibri, a 54-year-old farmer in Sidi Mahmoud, a rural town in Kairouan in central Tunisia. “We need to dig down to 300 meters to find water. Even if three or four of us come together, we cannot afford to cover the cost of digging that deep.”
Scarcity of water has driven many farmers away from Sidi Mahmoud, once a food basket in Tunisia, booming with olive, orange, watermelon and tomato produce.
Sibri’s three brothers were among the farmers who quit and relocated to the cities while his wife found a factory job in another town, leaving him behind him with their two children.
In 2016, the drought-related agricultural losses in Tunisia were estimated at 2 billion dinars ($905 million), according to the Tunisian Agriculture and Fishing Union.
Ridha Mahmoud Sebri, an olive farmer in Sidi Mahmoud is frustrated by the about-face of his farming. “What bothers me the most is that I have been investing in these trees,” he says. “When they get to an age to produce regularly and in good quantity, there is no more water to keep it going anymore.”
Thrust between low yields and malnutrition
In Nigeria’s southeastern state of Ebonyi, farmers in Amachi Mgbaneze are struggling to understand why their land is becoming less productive.
A few years ago, an average farmer in the community used to harvest about 120 bags of rice from planting 6 bags.
Now it is less than 30 bags of rice after toiling in the field for months, according to many farmers interviewed by The ICIR.
Experts believe that low yields have become commonplace in recent years in Ebonyi as plants wilted in the heat.
“When people grow their crops, you notice wilting and disease outbreaks,” says Caroline Utobo, an agronomist, working on FADAMA, a Nigerian Government project designed to increase the income of the farmers, reduce rural poverty and increase food security in all states in the country.
While the farmers may not understand the science of climate change, they feel the impact, from irregular rainfall to excessive heat. Farming, they say, has become a hard slog with little income to feed their families.
“Last year, one tuber of yam was enough for my family but this year the yam came out looking short,” says Romanus Ani, a farmer in Amachi Mgbaneze.
Ani’s household is suddenly facing food insecurity over his dwindling income. “We don’t gain anything anymore,” he says. “I used to give my family N1000, sometimes N1,500 for food but this year I sometimes don’t give because things are hard.”
Ani he is not alone as other farmers in the community are on the edge of malnutrition, like Felicia Nwodo who says her children are stunted because she does not have money to give them diversified diets.
“In the past when we eat garri at night, we take tea in the morning but due to lack of money, we eat garri at night and still in the morning we don’t have money to vary the diet for the kids and it’s stunting their growth,” Nwodo says.
Decreasing income for farmers over low yields is already worsening Nigeria’s malnutrition burden as a large percentage of the country’s population makes a living from farming.
About two million Nigerian children under the age of five have severe acute malnutrition and malnutrition is a direct cause of 45 per cent of all under-five deaths, placing the country second on the highest-burden of stunting in the world, according to the United Nations children’s agency, Unicef.
“It is a major concern because children below five years are exposed to malnutrition mainly because they are not eating a balanced diet and their diet patterns are not diversified,” says Umar Yahuza, a nutritionist at the Murtala Specialist Hospital, Kano.
“Low-income families can eat a single food every day for months without necessary proteins or vitamins,” Yahuza continues. “It is something we cannot separate from low food production by local farmers, and climate change is playing a serious role.”
Less nutritious food from rising temperature
A new study, published last January, found that rising temperatures are causing poorer diets in low-income countries as farmers increasingly lack diet diversity.
“Certainly, future climate changes have been predicted to affect malnutrition, but it surprised us that higher temperatures are already showing an impact,” Meredith Niles, lead author of the study and assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont wrote in a newsletter.
The finding poses fresh trouble in Nigeria, especially in states that are facing high malnutrition rates.
“Now is not a time to mince words. The majority of Ebonyi children are malnourished,” says Nwabumma Asuzuo, a dietitian at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Teaching Hospital in Ebonyi, who is also the chairperson of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria Ebonyi chapter.
“Even the adults are malnourished,” Asuzuo says. “When you get to the hinterland, you’ll cry. Where we manage severe acute malnutrition, about three centres we have here, we no longer have ready to use therapeutic food.”
That is the reality of Agnes Chibuzor, a smallholder farmer in Amachi Mgbaneze, who is saddened that her grandchildren are getting malnourished and she is helpless.
“I don’t even have money to train these children,” Chibuzor says. “Fish is unaffordable. No one gives me money to buy pap nor tea for the children. The children eat cassava all day and when you look at the children, you’ll see that they suffer from body and hair discolouration due to malnutrition.”
About one-third of Nigerian children under five years are stunted, while seven per cent are wasted and 22 per cent are underweight, according to the 2018 Nigeria Data and Health Survey, NDHS.
Stunting has a long-term effect on children’s physical and cognitive development as well as educational performance and economic productivity in adulthood.
Nigeria and Tunisia are both signatories to the United Nations, UN Sustainable Development Goals to end malnutrition by 2030.
While Nigeria is yet to meet its targets for stunting, wasting and underweight, Tunisia is on course.
The North African country has made progress towards achieving its target for stunting, though 8.4 per cent of children under five years of age are still affected, which is lower than the average in Africa at 30.7 per cent.
For wasting, 2.1 per cent of Tunisian children under five years of age are affected compared to the average in Africa at 6 per cent.
Latifa Beltaif, a nutritionist based in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, explains that the lack of essential nutrients which she refers to as “noble proteins” is missing in the meals of a majority of the population.
“We recommend that people eat four fruits or vegetables a day but they are not accessible to citizens,” she says. “Let alone meat or fish or protein considered as noble protein which are very important to treat anaemia and at the same time to meet the needs of the population.”
The World Food Programme’s report in 2022 confirms Beltaif’s position that Tunisia faces overlapping nutrition problems including deficiencies in vitamins and minerals.
The country is also burdened with iron deficiency for an estimated 28 per cent of children under five years and nursing mothers.
“It is necessary to create good guidance for good nutrition through a good nutrition education for the citizens in order to avoid consumption of food high in energy.
“Most of these problems can be solved with guidance around consumption towards good and diversified nutrition,” Beltaif says.
Are Climate-Smart Interventions necessary?
Millions of Nigerians have lost their sources of livelihood due to the effects of climate change and environmental issues, however, human activity has also cost economic losses.
In Northern Nigeria, droughts have contributed to increased desertification of the region and low crop yields.
But certain climate interventions by the Nigerian government, from drenching canals to the construction of dams meant to support irrigation farming, have been poorly implemented.
The Tiga dam in Kano was built on the Hadejia river in the 1970s to boost agricultural support by providing farmers with water during the dry season but the dam is usually locked during the dry season to allow drenching and expansion for an increased supply of water to rivulets.
The drenching project named Transforming Irrigation Management in Nigeria, TRIMMING shut down dams in Kano during the dry season in a bid to drench rivers and canals but which deprived farmers of water for their crops.
Halima Tijjani Said, leader of the women’s arm of the smallholder farmers in Kano, said apart from battling climate change-induced factors, the locking of the Tiga dam caused serious losses to farmers.
“Since last year, farmers whose lands are close to the Hadejia river did not get water because the river was being drenched and they locked the dam where the flow of water into the river is controlled from,” she says. “It’s over six months now, dry season farming in Kano is aided by irrigation so crops depending on water from the river did not survive.”
However, not all farmers in the region suffer the same fate as described by Tijjani. Maimuna Yayo, a cowpea farmer said the river close to her farm received water supply from the dam which improved her crop yields.
“I didn’t experience the drought this year because I had water in the river close to my farm which made me spend less on irrigation costs,” she says.
A joint study by the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) in partnership with the African Development Bank reveals that investing in climate-proof African farms costs less than one-tenth of the damage inflicted by climate disasters, including crop losses, and disaster relief, rebuilding roads and getting farmers back on their feet.
For sub-Saharan Africa, these costs are estimated at $201 billion a year, compared to the investments needed for climate adaptation in agriculture, which is estimated at $15 billion, according to the GCA.
Robert Onyeneke, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Agriculture in Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike in Ebonyi State, says the introduction of climate-resilient crops will be a game-changer in combating the effects of climate change.
“We have predictive models and studies that show that rising temperature and the changing patterns of rainfall combined are negatively affecting crop yield, especially crops like rice and cassava.
“The endpoint is that as we approach higher temperature increase, the climate will become warmer which will see declining crop yields. This can be tackled through the introduction of resilient crop varieties that can adapt to the changing climate which is a product of research studies.”
Onyeneke suggests that additional measures should be taken to ameliorate the suffering of farmers in the face of climate by adapting resource management techniques in determining the planting period and soil for certain crops.
This story was funded by the International Center for Journalists, ICFJ and the Eleanor Crook Foundation under the Global Nutrition and Food Security Reporting Fellowship.