Climate Changes Impact On Rural Agricultural Livelihoods Environmental Sciences Essay


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The impact of climate change on rural agricultural livelihoods in developing countries and how they can become more sustainable?

Almost one fifth of the world's population live in absolute poverty, each living on less than one US dollar a day (Jess, 2000). Rural land-users in many developing areas are facing increasing challenges in their day-to-day lives (Francis, 2000). Climate change can bring both positive and negative impacts on different land users through exposing farmers and rural households to new and unfamiliar conditions (Osbahr et al., 2008). These risks and impacts of climate change around the world are increasingly recognised as significant factors relating to food security, poverty-reduction and sustainable development (Osbahr et al., 2008). A livelihood comprises of people, their capabilities and their means of living, including food income and assets (Chambers and Conway, 1991). Livelihoods become environmentally sustainable when they maintain or enhance the local and global assets on which they depend on, which has benefit effects for others and their livelihoods (Chambers and Conway, 1991). This essay will discuss how climate change can impact people's lifestyles in rural communities and how rural communities can become more sustainable. It will then go onto talk about how vulnerability is increased and/or decreased when climate is changed. This essay will focus on areas within Asia and Africa who are thought to be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and change (Challinor et al., 2007). Asia and Africa were chosen as case studies as agriculture plays a dominant role in supporting rural livelihoods and economic growth (Challinor et al., 2007).

(Singh, 2010) states that:

"A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities require by the means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base".

Majority of previous studies have shown a negative impact on climate change and crop productivity in Africa and Asia (Challinor et al., 2007). Over 850 million people in the world are undernourished. It is therefore important to ensure that the new approaches contribute to improved agricultural productivity and that they help increase the poor people's access to food. A number of factors lead to deterioration, within rural livelihoods. Expansion of agriculture combined with unsustainable and natural resource management practises such as over grazing, over cultivation, nutrition inputs, poor irrigation practises and deforestation, often induced by population pressure and disruption of social systems cause this decay (Ziervogel and Calder, 2003). For rural livelihoods to become truly sustainable, it is not enough for small farmers to produce only enough food for home consumption as the costs for production in a smaller farm are similar to that of a larger commercial farm (Pretty et al., 2003).

About a third of the world's population lives in areas where fresh water is scarce or hard to get because of poor infrastructure. And the problem is rapidly getting worse for lack of the political will and concerted effort needed to achieve sustainable management of the world's finite water supplies. Poorest people are most at risk of climate change shocks and there are a range of poverty-related climate change impacts, including reduction and crop yields due to a decrease in water availability, major impacts on food security, employment, income and economic growth, a huge displacement of people and the exposure of millions of people to health risk (Schnoor, 2007). Climate change will aggravate the looming water crisis, as rising temperatures and more erratic rainfall in many regions drive up demand for irrigation (Pretty et al., 2003). Together, water scarcity and climate change will pose great hardship for many people in many ways. But most catastrophic of all are the expected impacts on global capacity to produce enough food. Within 40 years, the world will have another 2.5 billion people to feed, most of them in developing countries. Given that one litre of water is used to produce one calorie of food, it will take up to 6,000 cubic kilometres of additional water annually - nearly twice the amount used for food production today - to feed those people 2,500 calories daily (Pretty et al., 2003). The only solution is to make agricultural use of water far more productive and efficient than it is today. Two ways of doing this are, first, to refurbish old and neglected irrigation systems and, second, improve rain fed agriculture through better soil management and expanded use of water harvesting and supplemental irrigation. New higher yielding crop varieties that tolerate extreme conditions, like drought and flooding, can also help (Schild, 2010). Eradication of extreme poverty and hunger is among the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for sustainable development (Haile, 2005). Food security means access to nutritious food through direct food production by the farming household and/or through increased ability to purchase (economic access) a variety of foods from household income. Infertile soils are a major cause of poverty and hunger Africa (Haile, 2005) stemming from bad farming practices. He further stressed that poor farming practices deplete soil of basic nutrients needed by crops and deplete soil organic matter and water-holding capacity, which can ultimately reduced yield in more than 75% of farmland. Increased quality of natural capital, the land, leads to increased food and income security, which are prerequisites for household health security (Peters, 2006). This implies that households with secure food and income can afford medical and balanced diet expenses for household members. In addition, increased households income contributes to purchasing power for nutritious foods not produced on the farm. Conservation of water, through infiltration into the soil, contributes to protection of the quality of water sources, which indirectly contributes to a reduction in health risks that arise from the waterborne diseases (Peters, 2002).



People and Enterprises

Individuals organised as a group

Knowledgeable about markets

Good access to transport

Small input cost to revenue ratio

Consistent good quality products

Bargaining skills

Easy and equitable access to resources

Work with other livelihood strategies

Poorly organised group structure

Limited knowledge about markets

Poor access to transport

Large input cost to revenue ratio

Inconsistent quality products

Limited skills in bargaining

Restricted access to resources

Competes against other livelihoods


Commercial opportunities

Diversity of end markets

Diversity of end products

Positive market image

Buyers aware of product or brand

Undeveloped/poor market interest

Limited markets

Single niche products

No marketing image

Buyers ignorant of product or brand

Natural Resources

Abundant resources

Plant readily renewable

Harvesting does not destroy the plant

High yield and quality of product

Valuable product

Consistent and reliable yield from year to year

Fast growing

Sustainable cultivation

Widely distributed

Rare resources (water)

Slow replacement after crop is harvested

Destructive and damaging harvesting

Low yielding and/or poor quality product

Low value product

Inconsistent and unpredictable production

Slow growing with high inputs

Soil degradation due to slow cultivation

Only locally distributed

Figure : Analytical and intervention conceptual framework for development of integrated and sustainable management of natural capital (Malley et al., 2009)

Rural households in Africa and Asia tend to rely a great deal on climate-sensitive resources such as local water supplies and agricultural land. These climate-sensitive activities such as arable farming and livestock husbandry along with natural resources such as fuel wood and wild herbs are what they dependant on for everyday lives (Haile, 2005). Climate change can reduce the availability of these local natural resources, limiting the options for rural households that depend on natural resources for consumption or trade (Haile, 2005). In many developing countries food production has not kept up with population growth. Pressure on existing cultivated land in China has led to soil exhaustion and erosion, causing an increase dependency in external fertilisers and pesticides to maintain production in more intensive, shortened rotation systems (Crucefix, 1998). The productivity of land, incomes and the cohesiveness of society are closely linked in rural communities anywhere around the world. Where land becomes unproductive, rural depopulation occurs which may further exacerbate productivity and alter the gender and age balance of rural communities (Crucefix, 1998). Crucefix (1998) states that environmental damage seen as a result of agricultural activity in developing countries which include:


Environmental Damage Impacts

Soil erosion

Low productivity, salinity, water holding capacity

Sediment damage

Reservoir siltation, increased navigation channel siltation, floods, increase costs of road maintenance, habitat degradation

Over irrigation

Depletion of groundwater, water logging, salinisation

Agrochemical damage

Worker health, water contamination, water choking, cost of cleaning damage

Soil compaction

Soil productivity, harder to cultivate


Soil erosion, crop damage from high winds

Wetland drainage

Decreased water purification, genetic diversity drainage

Air pollution

Odour, smoke, water safety

Vulnerability in facing climate change mirrors people's marginalisation within society. Climate change affected people are disproportionally strained from the segments of the society which are continually marginalised in daily life (Gaillard, 2010). Climate change has substantial implications for rural development in the Asia-Pacific region. A vast majority of the population live in rural areas and depend heavily on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock and other climate sensitive sectors (Schild, 2010). Climate change poses a serious threat to livelihoods and food security, as well as enhancing risks and vulnerabilities through the increased frequency of natural disasters and extreme weather events. It has now been clearly established that climate change, together with an increasing demand for freshwater, will increase water stress in many Asia-Pacific countries, particularly in South Asia. This will be critically important to agricultural production, food security, and rural development in the future (Assan et al., 2009). Increasing water stress combined with increasing uncertainty and extreme weather events will affect food production and will enhance food insecurity across the entire South Asian region. The impact of climate change can increase the vulnerability of rural livelihoods by adversely affecting their health and way of life, which therefore undermines growth opportunities (Dasgupta and Baschieri, 2010). One of the major impacts of climate change to rural communities is the risk of flooding. Rural people are more vulnerable during high rainfall, heat waves, storms and droughts. This is because there access to communication, safety and AID is limited compared to an urban area suffering the same events. Health is one of the main impacts during climate induced events as there is an increase in deaths and high rates of diseases which can occur during events such as heat waves. The best way to adapt to these sorts of issues is to have disease surveillance and control systems, access to better health facilities and emergency relief systems. In the face of climate-related environmental change, such as the decline of productive agricultural land, rural residents may be forced to migrate in search of work. Migrants who find work often remit portions of their salary back home (Haile, 2005). Their families in the home communities may use the remittances to buy substitutes for goods previously produced or harvested from the local environment. For example, store-bought food may substitute for food previously grown on homestead plots (Haile, 2005). Global warming, will likely cause potential crop yields in most of the African and Asian regions to decline. Overall climate change is expected to slow the growth of world food production, resulting in higher food prices and adding pressure to poor people as affordability will restrict them from buying such goods. Change in rainfall has had an impact on water sources and availability, as well as agricultural production (Msangi, 2007). This has led overall to increased vulnerability in food and water security, with direct impacts to health (mainly nutrition and water-borne illness) and poverty. In Africa, where communities have always been vulnerable to water scarcity, decreased rainfall has created a dire situation for access to water and production of rain-fed crops (Msangi, 2007). In this region, the unpredictability of rainfall has made agricultural production, the main source of income, difficult and undependable. Here water is more abundant and the change in rainfall has been problematic for agricultural production due to increased erosion and silting rather than water availability. The flooding in southern parts of Africa is generally a product of cyclones (Msangi, 2007). While cyclones have been problematic in Africa, the perception continues to stand those cyclones, floods, and droughts which are all part of a natural cycle (Devereux, 2007) and therefore floods are viewed as having detrimental effects to food stocks in cyclone years and beneficial effects to agricultural production in the years following cyclones. However, sedimentation (increased by a number of factors, flooding being one) has been seen to have a significant negative impact on the marine environment and therefore fish populations (Eakin and Appendini, 2008). Increased food insecurity is the most notable vulnerability for communities in all three regions. Traditional open ridge practices are used to increase soil productivity through better soil-water management, to enhance soil fertility, increase crop rooting depth and facilitate organic matter incorporation (Muchena et al., 2005). Traditional open-ridge practices increase soil surface roughness, which helps to reduce soil erosion by water and wind. However, farmers do not cultivate the open ridges on contour lines, which lead to accelerated soil, water and nutrient loses from the system during short heavy rainfall, creating gullies along the open furrows (Muchena et al., 2005).

Degradation of natural resources is a major enemy of small farmers in developing countries. Threats to the agro ecosystem come in many forms such as soil erosion, compaction, nutrition depletion, acidification, shrinking and contaminated water supplies, loss of vegetation cover, reduced biodiversity, global climate change and greater susceptibility of crops to pests and diseases (Clover and Eriksen, 2009). Some of these problems are acute and highly visible, while others are more chronic and subtle. Resource degradation has a major impact of rural communities as they can undermine farmer's ability to compete in the market. Increased plants per unit area and enhanced soil productivity increased crop yields. Increased plant number is the result of planting cross ridges, which reduces land wastage caused by open furrows (Malley et al., 2009) . Soil productivity is the overall condition necessary for optimum crop productivity, which includes availability of nutrients, absence of crop toxicity, and availability of soil water (Prowse, 2009). The acquisition, development, and delivery of agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers, as well as timely public market information to help stabilize markets, are among the priorities of a new agenda for market development in Africa (Mignouna et al., 2008). New technology has shown to lead directly to higher incomes for local farms and landless rural households which can help boost the local economy. New intensive production technologies (including adoption of genetically modified crops) can help to increase yields and reduce losses reducing the vulnerability of rural communities giving them a consistent source of income (Mignouna et al., 2008).

The main factors which characterise a typical rural transport environment are low population densities, low levels of economic activity (and hence low incomes), low vehicle ownership levels (of any description, including non-motorised vehicles), inferior provision of roads (both quality and quantity), and near absence of regular transport services (Bryceson et al., 2008). Given these difficult conditions, travel still takes place though at very low levels of participation by comparison with urban communities where vehicles are of the norm (Plessis-Fraissard, 2007). Transport development may bring in its challenge the problem of environmental degradation. It is obvious that degradation is not just an urban problem, connected with the high volumes of traffic (air pollution, noise and severance). Rural road construction can have overpowering ill-effects on, for example, slope stability, erosion and natural drainage patterns. Of these, erosion is thought to have the major environmental impact. Mitigation measures to control erosion can be included in the designs (e.g. appropriate drainage channels and culverts) as well as in the implementation (e.g. quickly establishing vegetation on exposed slopes) (Bryceson et al., 2003). The method of implementation may also contribute to reduced environmental damage; thus labour-based (as opposed to heavy machinery) operations may be better deployed due to the greater precision and sensitivity of application that is possible. The indirect environmental impacts of rural transport development are much less easy to predict, because they are likely to be of a long term nature (Jacobs and Greaves, 2003). Changes in land-use may result from the greater accessibility due to improved roads and services. Roads which have been used to reveal rain forests of Africa have encouraged the development of settled farming communities, but at the expense of the indigenous peoples' livelihoods, and at the expense of the natural ecology (Plessis-Fraissard, 2007). Nevertheless, roads also improve livelihood outcomes through better access to natural assets and management of forest resources which can help generate higher income and help communities boost their livelihoods in the long term.

Figure : Cause-effect model of soil productivity decline in Africa (Malley et al., 2009)

Figure 2 above shows how insecurity or rural livelihoods can change with unsustainable land management. To become more sustainable we must integrate natural processes such as nutrient cycles, nitrogen fixing, soil regeneration and natural enemies of pests into food production processes (Brent and Mulder, 2005). We must also minimise the use of non-renewable resources inputs such as coal, diesel and wood which largely damage the environment and harm the health of farmers (Pretty et al., 2003). Valuable use of knowledge and skills of local farmers can also be beneficial as it can help improve self reliance and substituting human capital for costly inputs, can help reduce expenditure which can be spent on other items. Poor rural communities must also work together to answer basic agricultural and natural resource problems such as the reduction of pests, watershed, and cutting back irrigation, or using different water systems which uses water in a more sustainable manner (Schild, 2010). Improvements in the efficiency of water use can benefit both irrigated and rainfed farmers by allowing new or formerly degraded lands to be brought under farming, and to increase cropping intensity on existing lands (Pretty et al., 2003). Intensification boosts the productivity of land and labour, through higher crop yields, better on-farm nutrient cycling and more effective pest control. Fragile environments, upon which poor farmers depend on for living, require special attention. Areas such as hill slopes can be very productive if they are cultivated well and properly managed. Previous studies have shown that improved water retention has resulted in water tables by rising about 1m over 3 to 4 years, in some places around Africa (Martin, 2004). This shows that farmers can become more productive as they are now able to plant a extra crop in, making an unproductive season into a productive season (Pretty et al., 2003). In places such as Sub Saharan Africa, water harvesting is also transforming barren lands. This method is ideal as it is not to complex and costly, which means farmers will greatly benefit from this type of technology (Pretty et al., 2003). Successful rainwater harvesting techniques have improved water infiltration, reduced run-off and increased water holding capacities of soils (Challinor et al., 2007). Agroforestry has also been a approach which has become well-liked in rural areas. Agroforestry is an integrated method of using the interactive benefits from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock. It combines agricultural and forestry technologies to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy and sustainable land-use systems (Leakey et al., 2005). An important livelihood asset for enhancement of sustainability of livelihoods is social capital. Social capital comprise of social relationships in networks with shared norms, values and understanding that facilitate cooperation within or among group. Basic sources of social capital stem from three types of connection: bonding, bridging and linking(Bebbington, 1997). A decline in the quality of natural capital assets leads to scarcities for livelihoods of people who depend on them(Bebbington, 1999). When resources scarcities occur, social conflict over scarce resources emerges and tends to intensify among members of a community and between communities using the resources (Paavola, 2008). This implies that sustainable management of the quality of natural capital assets contributes to prevention of social conflicts and enhances social security, an asset necessary for secured livelihoods. Improved social relations provided capital for development of improved integrated ridge tillage practices and further inspired local innovation, such as use of ploughs for the improved integrated ridge tillage system. Recognition and respect for local knowledge, skills, practices and innovative capacities by professionals and authorities improves social relations in the development process and leads to social security (Bebbington, 1997). This suggests that valuing locally available human capital assets (knowledge, skills, experience and practices) in existing livelihood systems is a necessary starting point for social security and development of improved technologies, innovations, systems and practices for sustainable development (Paavola, 2008).

Agriculture remains the backbone of many African economies, representing an estimated 57% of total employment and 17% of the gross domestic product (Greed, 2004). Africa is the only region of the world where per capita food grain output has declined over the past four decades, requiring the continent to import 25% of its food grain requirements. Farm inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are prohibitively expensive and, where used, carry attendant human and environmental health concerns as a result of poisoning and pollution (Bryan et al., 2009). A secure environment is necessary for human security and sustainable development. Environmental security is when the ecosystem and environment are able to support a healthy pursuit of life, liberty and happiness by present and future generations (Greed, 2004). This means that environmental security has positive consequences on livelihood security today and in the future. Increased soil and water conservation, organic carbon and soil fertility are positive outcomes of more sustainable use and management of natural capital for secured rural livelihoods. Infiltration of water into the soil prevents losses of soil, water and nutrients (Greed, 2004). Losses are the processes through which quality of the natural capital, the land, is depleted. Furthermore, infiltrated water serves as a source of underground water available for crops use during water stress. Sustainability can be improved by integrating ridge tillage practices which can reduce crop water stress in periods of prolonged non-rainfall. This implies that ridge tillage practice is important in soil water management. First, when there is excess water, it drains into basins/furrows; second, when there is moisture stress, conserved water in the subsoil supports plant growth through capillary movement to the root zone; and third, incorporated organic residues in the soil increase humus, which, in turn, improves soil water and nutrient holding capacity (Clover and Eriksen, 2009). Humus can be essential for increasing soil moisture and nutrients retention and enhancing the buffering capacity of the soil (Bryan et al., 2009). Previous studies have shown that, humus can hold four to five times more available water than mineral soils. Increases in soil organic carbon and nutrients build up under improved integrated ridge tillage practices, leading to increased security of natural capital, which has implications for overall security of the production environment and rural household livelihoods (Bryan et al., 2009). Soil health is fundamental for agricultural sustainability, yet is under widespread threat from degradation processes. Agricultural sustainability starts with the soil by seeking both to reduce soil erosion and to make improvements to soil physical structure, organic matter content, water-holding capacity and nutrient balances (Pretty et al., 2003). Soil health is improved through the use of legumes, green manures and cover crops, incorporation of plants with the capacity to release phosphate from the soil into rotations, use of composts and animal manures, adoption of zero-tillage, and use of inorganic fertilisers where needed (Zhen et al., 2006). Biomass to soils substantially improves soil organic matter content, and has helped to increase cereal productivity for some 45,000 families in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (Muchena et al., 2005).

Potential Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture




Social Conditions

Economic Conditions


While climate change has been posing life-threatening challenges, it has also formed new opportunities for rural livelihoods through improved management of natural ecosystems and their services. Rural development continues to be a very vital priority for the entire Asia and Africa region as they are one of the major providers of food. The rural sector will remain the most important sector for supporting majority of people in both Asia and Africa, even with the increase in rapid urbanisation. Knowledge and information sharing within the communities and obtaining knowledge from other sources, about sustainable farming practises, natural disasters and climatic events, can help build the resilience to local rural livelihoods and communities to climate change. Migration is one of many survival strategies also used by rural households in times of environmental stress. Other survival strategies include using food reserves, seeking local nonfarm employment, selling livestock, borrowing food, or selling household and farm equipment. Still, once these livelihood options are exhausted, people often migrate to a new area. Increased agricultural sustainability can also be complementary to improvements in rural people's livelihoods. It can deliver increases in food production at relatively low cost, plus contribute to other important functions such as sustainable water usage and soil erosion reduction. If these approaches are widely adopted, they would make a significant impact on rural people's livelihoods, as well as on local and regional food security. Improving agricultural sustainability clearly will not answer the entire question, but progress from recent years can have the sustainability of present and future livelihoods. With further support, particularly through international, national and local policy reforms, the benefits to food security and assistance, development to natural, social and human capital will help increase the number of farmers and rural people in the future. Adaption and mitigation strategies should help reduce poverty and at the same time must benefit the most vulnerable communities without harming the environment. Notifying livelihoods about climate change impacts, vulnerability patterns, coping and adaptive capacity as well as facilitating location precise adaption and mitigation practises are of central concern within Africa and Asia.

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