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Drought, Agriculture and Sweet Adaptation

March 07 2016 - by Leslie J. Walling, Guest Contributor and Consultant (Community Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation Planning and Coastal Resource Management)

Prior to 2014/2015, the Caribbean's last severe drought was in 2010.  In October 2014, Jamaica was in an improving drought situation, while Antigua and Barbuda reported that the meteorological drought was at that time the worst drought since 2002/2003[1].  In Cuba, the water crisis was the most severe since 2004.   In 2015 a particularly harsh El Nino reduced precipitation across the Caribbean, from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, to Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.  El Nino events are cyclical, as is their influence on the weather conditions that affect productivity and wellbeing in the Caribbean. 

Droughts are not as frequent, seasonal, or spectacular as hurricanes, but their effects may be socially and economically devastating.  It was reported that in Haiti, about 200,000 families (1 million people) had been affected by drought conditions since the beginning of 2015[2]. In the Dominican Republic, agricultural production was reported to have dropped by nearly 11 percent as a result of drought, while in neighbouring Haiti, crop losses of up to 50 percent were reported for the hardest-hit areas[3].

In a recent article entitled “Drought Management vs Climate Risk Management” the author, Bapon Shm Fakhruddin, made the point that while the ability of countries to provide and mobilize resources to tackle drought emergencies has increased, farm-level vulnerability in the arid/semiarid dry regions still persists.  The author attributed the persistence of farm-level vulnerability to the reliance on large-scale resource transfer in the form of income, food, water and fodder to drought affected areas.  The suggested solution was the development of an alternative drought management approach that would gradually eliminate or reduce relief while increasing the capacity of the affected areas to withstand droughts on their own.

An example of increasing farm-level drought resilience comes from Saint Lucia.  Like many communities across the Caribbean, Balembouche, in Choiseul, Saint Lucia, has experienced months of dry weather.  The weather has been so dry that Logwood Trees have only bloomed once in the last year, instead of three times as they would normally do.  The drought has affected other flowering plants including commonly cultivated crops.  For the members of the Farmers with Disabilities Bee-keeping Association (FDBA) this is not good news.  In fact it isn’t news at all.  Over the past year, the FDBA has recorded a decline in the quantity of honey being produced in their hives. 

Prolonged drought conditions reduce the frequency with which flowering plants blossomed in and around the Choiseul community. The number of times the logwood trees blossom had been reduced from three-times per year to once per year. Logwood was the primary source of pollen for the bees managed by the FDBA. In the absence of sufficient number of blossoming plants in a three-mile radius of the FDBA hives, the bees will abandon their hives (swarm) and relocate to the forested interior of Saint Lucia which is wetter and offers a greater density of flowering plants.  The absence of sufficient open-water also increased the risk that bees would swarm.

The members of the FDBA chose bee-keeping as a livelihood because it is not as physically demanding as other occupations.  Additionally, beekeeping does not require a large area of land or a large labour force, and perhaps most importantly; there is a high demand for honey in Saint Lucia and worldwide.  With unemployment levels in southern communities in Saint Lucia at 20% or more, making a living from bee-keeping can be the difference between being self-employed, and unemployed.

To protect their livelihood, the FDBA embarked on a project in June 2015 to increase the resilience of their bee keeping operation in the face climate change threats.  This was to be achieved by increasing the number of flowering plants and flowering crops available to their bees, by increasing the quantity of accessible water for bees and for farmers cultivating flowering crops and other flowering plants.  The FDBA project increased the number of flowering plants and crops by propagating flowering crops and trees in an irrigated greenhouse erected by the project.  An in-field irrigation system was established to provide water for farm plots in which flowering crops would be cultivated by members of the FDBA and the Bell Vue Farmers Association.   A large pond and feeder-channels were excavated to store water from the Balembouche River and to capture rainwater collected from the roof of the 30m by 10m greenhouse.  A rainwater harvesting system was also erected to supply six 1000-gallon storage-tanks purchased under the project.

On a local-scale, the FDBA has increased its capacity to manage drought. The adaptation strategy that FDBA has developed, involving rainwater and river-water harvesting and storage; the propagation of flowering crops and trees for local reforestation and expanded organic agricultural production; together provide protection for its bee-keeping operation and the member’s livelihoods by placing the operation in a managed environment that is more resilient in drought conditions. 

Livelihoods resilience will be further bolstered by adding value to the by-products of beekeeping. The FDBA already produces soaps and lotions from bees-wax, scenting the toiletries with extracts from herbs cultivated by the FDBA.  More recently, the storage pond was stocked with Tilapia, adding income from fish-production to that from the sale of honey and toiletries.  Increased income can provide further climate resilience through reinvestment in livelihoods sustainability and through savings.

They say that all disasters are local.  

Are our national drought management approaches sufficiently tailored to take into consideration and respond to local needs, cultures, preferences and opportunities?

Are we as prepared for drought conditions as we are prepared for say, hurricanes? 

Are current national drought management practices reactive, focusing primarily on the symptoms, or have we begun to address the underlying causes?

What are some of the traditional and new best practices that have been employed to manage and adapt to farm-level drought conditions in the Caribbean?  

In a changing climate, will underlying causes change with time?

 

[1][1] Caribbean Drought Bulletin, October 2014. (http://www.regions.noaa.gov/secar/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Caribbean-Drought-Bulletin_October-2014_Issue5.pdf).

[2] Caribbean: Drought - 2015-2016: Overview (http://reliefweb.int/disaster/dr-2015-000091-hti).

[3] Caribbean islands brace for worsening effects of severe drought as dry season approaches. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/09/22/caribbean-islands-brace-for-worsening-effects-severe-drought-as-dry-season.html.