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Climate Change Triggers Migration in The Gambia's North Bank Region

Jul 16, 2008, 10:01 AM | Article By: By Ismaila N. Senghore,The Gambia

Although the problems of migration have been around since time immemorial, the large proportions it has reached in the Gambia today are attributable to climate change and its consequences. Drought and desertification, which are some of its direct results, have jeopardized the livelihoods of many rural habitations in the Gambia.

The effect is most felt in homes deserted by migrants, where people not only feel the direct pinch of loosing their energetic forces, the youth, but also become liabilities, largely depending on the state for sustenance. As such, the migration phenomenon itself becomes exacerbated and engrained in a chain of catch twenty-two.

The main factor mobilizing the youth to migrate is the quasi destruction of the social fabric which, hitherto, was the basic support to the equilibrium that made communities self-sustaining and stable. Traditionally, communities depended on the land and the plentitude of hands for labor as well as the forest or water bodies which they exploited for farming, fruit collection, hunting and fishing respectively. Rains were good and the resulting harvest was generally adequate to feed families from one cropping season to the other, supplemented by products form the forest and fishing.

Nowadays, however, climate change has a drastic effect on traditional societies.

A quick glance at what is happening in the North Bank Region of the Gambia will amply demonstrate our purpose here. The region was the leader in groundnut production, which is a cash crop. Its climate and soil structure were very suitable for the crop. It was also a major producer of coos, millet and rice, key staple food of the majority.

But today, it is the driest of all the regions in the country. The yearly rains which used to last four to five months now hardly reach two months. So, crops dry out before they mature or produce grains or nuts. Last season, many groundnut growers had only hay for sale. Even though, their hay fetched a record high price as livestock owners scrambled for it, overall groundnut income was appalling.

Mr. Buba Joof is a company employee who is also an experienced farmer in this region. "The last growing season was a failure as far as groundnuts is concerned", he says. "As a result of climate change, locally dug wells are drying up due to the lowering of the water table. My well was only eleven meters deep but now, I had to re-dig up to twelve to thirteen meters to get water," he says. In addition to groundnuts, Mr. Joof grows cassava on a large scale as well as coos to supplement his company income. His productivity dwindles every year. In his village of Sinhcu Alieu, a few minutes drive to the east after crossing the Gambia River from the capital, Banjul, livestock owners are also having a tough time feeding their livestock. "People have to look for fodder trees to cut down feed for the animals to stave their hunger", Mr. Joof asserts.

The drought, most likely engendered by climate change, has made gardening in the dry season more and more difficult, because of the acute water scarcity. This has also a direct bearing on livestock production and agriculture in general, making the food situation very precarious for rural dwellers, which are by all standards, the poorest of the poor.

In some rice fields, lack of abundant rains have caused high salinity in soils making productivity hardly possible any more and compounding the local supply of rice. The price of imported rice thus sky-rockets above the financial reach of consumers. The global looming food crisis seems, therefore, inevitable. Families become more and more dependent only on remittances from emigrants in the west and elsewhere for their subsistence, as agricultural productivity dies down.

Given this gloomy scenario, many farmers eat or sell any stock of seeds they kept for the growing season, which they await with utmost skepticism due to the unpredictability of what it holds for them. They sometimes become so much debt ridden that they are forced to sell their farming implements or some of the few livestock left with them. When they realize that the growing season has come again, it's often too late to do the work adequately. Any means of ensuring seeds, if they are to grow anything at all that season, becomes a cause to wander about up to relatives in the towns and villages for cash handouts. Without seeds, an easy option is to migrate in search of any kind of paid-for jobs wherever that seems possible. 

Mr, Wagan Faye is a farmer at Amdallaye, a village at the border with southern Senegal. According to him, climate change is most felt by the drought it inflicted on their area of the North Bank Region. As a result, farming has become very difficult, he says. In addition, soils are poor and parasitic weeds abound, he added. "The lack of rains also causes our crops to die off soon after germination and this aggravates the already serious seed situation. I am a victim myself. So my only hope this year is to sow the short duration millet for food. There again, without animal manure or organic fertilizers which are too expensive for us anyway, the yields are always undesirable." he says.

In the face of these challenges, farmers shift to other activities that generate some income, but are detrimental to the ecology of the area. While some farmers in the region resort to salt production which is favored by the hot, evaporative heat, many turn over to cashew nut plantations which are more drought resilient, but unfavorable to intercropping with staple food crops. Others depend on charcoal and firewood production for sale particularly in peri-urban areas, as the demand of cooking fuel becomes ever more acute and trees becoming rarer. Unfortunately, these latter activities are very inimical to the rejuvenation of the forests, despite numerous tree planting campaigns by the Department of Forestry. To make things worse, seasonal, raging bush fires engulf almost all grass cover, which livestock could have fed on.

Climate change has many health implications too. The weather has become extremely unfriendly with heat waves and seasonal dust storms. This leads to serious respiratory and skin illnesses that are out of the common. The medical bill of farmers, who have already been pauperized by challenging working conditions, therefore increases and so the accompanying social tension. In a society where financial interdependency of the community members for collective survival is the norm, everybody feels the burden together with the rest, even if one is relatively better off.

The best way forward, therefore, is agricultural diversification. Farmers need to shift from long duration to short duration, high-yielding and drought resistant cultivars such as the New Variety of Rice for Africa (Nerica), sesame, sunflower, cassava and beans. At the same time, land and water conservation and its management has to out run the degradation forces. Sensitization of farmers is absolutely necessary to make them understand climate change, its effects, implications and consequences as they feel the effects but cannot relate them to the causes. Also, research bodies have to bring the right seeds to the door-steps of farmers in time. This will help revitalize agriculture, hitherto described as the backbone of the country and give a new lease of life to the rural communities. It will also go a long way in containing would-be migrants and even attract those already away back to their homeland.