Climate Change and Food Insecurity Burden Women in Nigeria


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AGBUNGBU, NIGERIA – Before 7 a.m., women and their children hurry to their farms with baskets, hoes and cutlasses in the serene village of Agbungbu in southwestern Nigeria.

“We need to get to the farm early before the sun comes out and make[s] it difficult for us to finish the day’s work,” one woman, Omokunnu Ajiun, says. “The way the sun comes out these days is like it is nearer us, and it will be [as] hot as if one is in hell.”

She says her children must work on the farm before school.

“They will go and join them in the school later when we come back from the farm,” she says without slowing her pace. “They have to assist me with the work in the farm first.”

This is the daily routine for thousands of rural woman and their children in Nigeria. The routine is necessary if the families are to harvest enough food to survive.

In Nigeria, farmers are feeling the effects of climate change as oppressive heat and irregular rainfall make agriculture more difficult and less productive, threatening incomes and food security. Women say they struggle the most because they take on the majority of food responsibilities here. The government has developed schemes to address food insecurity but acknowledges that many states lack the infrastructure to respond to climate change and that more needs to be done.

The climate is the primary factor in agricultural productivity, and in turn, agriculture contributes to climate change, according to a 2008 report by university professors Cumhur Aydinalp and Malcolm S. Cresser. Agriculture contributes approximately 20 percent of the annual increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions through carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide gas emissions, leading to global warming. This affects agriculture, which accounted for almost 42 percent of Nigeria’s gross domestic product in 2009, according to the latest National Bureau of Statistics data.

The 2010 Global Hunger Index classified Nigeria’s hunger situation as “serious,” according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, which seeks sustainable solutions to end hunger and poverty. Nigeria is not on track to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, goal one of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, a U.N. global action plan that countries have pledged to achieve by 2015, according to the MDG monitor.

The impact of climate change on agriculture puts the MDG target at an additional risk, according to a 2010 government report.

“The majority of poor people in Nigeria depend heavily on climate-sensitive natural resources for rural incomes, employment and livelihoods,” according to the report. “Yet they have the least capacity and resources to cope with climate change impacts and to adapt effectively and sustainably.”

In Agbungbu, the women say that farming is already difficult here.

“Farming is seasonal, and when the planting or harvesting season is at hand you have to work rigorously to be able to bring out something tangible out from your farm,” Latifat Ponle, a local farmer, says.

They say climate change has made farming even harder.

“It is even worse now that the heat is so much,” Tale Asafa, another farmer, says. “We have never experience[d] this type of heat in the southern part of Nigeria before.”

She says rainfall has been unpredictable.

“In the past it should be raining so much now and the weather so cool, but what are we experiencing?” she asks. “Terrible heat.”

Asafa says that the irregular rainfall will delay the harvesting of their yams, a major crop here.

“New yams that normally comes out in May every year might not come out until July this year because of the irregular rainfall,” Asafa says. “The heat have also destroy most of the yam we planted inside the soil, which means yams output will be reduced drastically this year – and this is our only source of income. May God have mercy on us.”

J.O. Ashaolu, director of the Ministry of Environment for Osun, the state where Agbungbu is located, says the irregular weather is affecting farming across Nigeria.

“The heat is so much this year, and the rainfall highly unpredictable,” Ashaolu says. “With the heat, the weather is conducive for insect[s] to breed, and, as a result of this, both the grains, crops and even the farmers will be affected.”

He says the combination of extreme heat and irregular rain could devastate local farmers.

“Changing rainfall patterns could devastate the rain-fed agriculture on which so much of the population of Nigeria depends to survive,” Ashaolu says.

A.S. Momodu, an expert in climate change who conducted a study in the area last year, says that climate change and food security are twin global challenges that are already roosting in Nigeria. Another assessment he did in 2009 on Nigeria’s food situation found that it was unstable, availability was inadequate, processing time was inefficient and inflation eroded people’s purchasing power.

Around the world, women often bear the brunt of the burden associated with a changing climate. Here, married women say they take on the majority of the work when it comes to food, while widows and single mothers are responsible for all of the labor. 

“Our husbands do the clearing of the land,” Dolapo Aje says.

She and two other women, Folakemi Ayinde and Abidemi Olaoluwa, say the women do the rest of the work together.

“We do the planting together, we do the weeding together, we do the harvesting together, we and our children carry our harvest from the farm to the village, we do the cooking, fetch water, gather firewood,” Aje says. “In short, we do most of the work.”

Momodu says that the women in rural areas here have proven to have a very high level of commitment to rural entrepreneurship considering the number of hours they put into food processing alone. 

He says the government should help maximize their efforts by providing good health care centers in the villages, education and the necessary capital to aid their agricultural productivity.

The government has developed pioneering schemes, such as tagging and tracking funds allocated to poverty reduction from debt relief, compulsory free basic education, conditional cash transfers to the vulnerable for social protection, and federal grants to support investment in state and local governments, according to the 2010 MDG report by the government. But it also acknowledged the need to create an enabling environment for business to help develop agriculture and expand and better coordinate social protection and poverty eradication programs.

But with Nigeria being the most populous country in Africa – home to nearly 155 million people in 2009, according to the World Bank – it is difficult for the government to help everyone, Ashaolu says.

“Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of severe weather events,” Ashaolu says. “Unfortunately, many states in Nigeria largely lack the infrastructure necessary to respond adequately to such events.”

Ashaolu says that Nigerian women need urgent help to alleviate their suffering because of climate change and called on everyone to do what they can to help. He says that individuals, nongovernmental organizations and communities should plant more trees, which check erosion, combat carbon dioxide, and provide firewood for women and children in rural areas.

Momodu says the women should also support one another.

“Women involved in rural entrepreneurship practices usually operate in isolation, not being involved in any guild association to coordinate their activities, and make representation to the appropriate quarters for help,” Momodu says. “Therefore, they should form such associations.”

Local women have their own ideas, too.

“If only we can have places to store our crops, pipe-borne water to drink, nets to protect ourselves from insects, means of transport that could go into the bush to bring our crops to our hamlets like bikes, places to process our food in affordable prices, it will alleviate our problems and we will be able to produce more food for our families,” Layoonu Amoke says.