Climate change challenges farmers
People across the world have to face an increasingly variable climate, which has been amplified by human industrial activities over the past century. Unfortunately, countries are not equally vulnerable to potentially harmful weather patterns such as rainfall, droughts, and cyclones. As we continue to release more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming, developing countries will be the ones suffering the most from climate change. Myanmar, in fact, has been identified by the Global Climate Risk Index as the second most affected country by climate variability worldwide, after Honduras.
With this in mind, it is urgent to consider what steps should be taken to minimise the impending risks of climate variability in Myanmar – in particular for the agricultural sector, which accounts for 38 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank.
Climate change affects agriculture in a number of ways, including through changes in average temperature, rainfall frequency and intensity, heat waves, pests and diseases, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and even the nutritional quality of some foods such as rice, sesame, groundnut, and sunflower.
Among climatic events, flooding constitutes perhaps the most significant challenge for agriculture in Myanmar. Heavy rainfall, overflow of nearby rivers, and tidal movements in coastal areas can result in the complete submergence of paddy fields. Under these conditions, rice dies within days, resulting in total crop loss and foregone income for the farmers.
Some studies show that average yields of monsoon rice were slashed by nearly two thirds between a good year and a bad year, falling from 1440 kg per acre to 538 Kg per acre. As rice is the most important agricultural commodity in Myanmar, climate variability could thus send significant shockwaves through the economy.
Many remember how extreme weather events have had devastating impacts on agriculture in the past. After Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the government estimated short and medium term agricultural financial needs at a whopping US$243 million – for rice seeds, fertilisers, rehabilitation of embankments, and irrigation schemes. Indeed, five of the most cyclone-affected state and regions were producing 65pc of the country’s rice, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). While scientists cannot absolutely determine if cyclones like Nargis are a direct result of climate change, more and more data suggests cyclone intensity may indeed be linked to global warming.
In addition to comprising a great share of the country’s income, agriculture employs the majority of the population – around 70pc of the labour force, according to FAO. Therefore, more than two out of three workers directly depend on crop yields to make a living, which are closely linked to climate patterns. Farmers’ revenues are usually very modest, and are realized only after the harvest. If we look at income, an agricultural worker in Myanmar earns on average K3,000 per day during monsoon season, and K4,500 during dry season, according to the World Bank. Since the agricultural sector is considered low profit and high risk, it can be challenging for farmers to benefit from financial investments and insurance schemes compensating them for a poor harvest.
But there are a number of ways climate change can be tackled by the agricultural sector.
For example, the International Rice Research Institute has developed a floodresistant rice variety that can withstand being submerged under water for two weeks, as opposed to only a few days, which lessens the risk that a whole crop might be ruined by a single flood. Already some farmers in Myanmar have been using this variety.
Crop diversification is also an effective strategy to deal with climate variability. By diversifying, farmers increase the range of potential food and income sources available to them. A farm economics study by the World Bank and the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund found that most farms produce paddies during monsoon season but increasingly grow a variety of other crops such as beans and pulses, oil seeds, and maize during dry season. If we compare with a sector like finance, investors apply the same strategy: by diversifying their portfolio, they are reducing their investment risk.
Moreover, some organisations have developed mobile phone applications to inform farmers about incoming weather patterns and provide farming best practices. These new digital technologies can enable farmers to mitigate climate change impact. If farmers know that a storm is coming, for example, they can prepare by properly storing their equipment, seeds, grain, and livestock ahead of time to reduce the damage.