Farmers in Sudan battle climate change and hunger as desert creeps closer

 Farmers in Sudan battle climate change and hunger as desert creeps closer
The Guardian
Gedaref state, Sudan

Farmers in Sudan battle climate change and hunger as desert creeps closer

In Sudan’s eastern state of Gedaref, nicknamed “the granary” for its vast rows of sesame, sorghum and millet, banks of sediment and gravel are popping up as high as hills around the farms – the result of deforestation and erratic rains causing watering holes to overflow.

Locals call them karab, meaning “something useless”, says environmental scientist Tarig El Gamri, standing atop one such mound. He points out the water mark swirls etched around one of many deep gullies near the village of Wad Hassan, a 45-minute drive east of Gedaref city.

Climate change affected the intensity of rainfall. When it is very intense, you have very quick and very high runoffs, and this is what we are seeing now,” says El Gamri, a project coordinator at the Sudan Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources. “They spoil the soil. Now you see they cannot cultivate such land, because it has lost the levelling.”

A community garden in Siraj Alnour village in Gedaref state, where farmers are benefiting from irrigation projects that can feed gardens and help to grow crops year-round. Photographs: Hannah McNeish


In 2015, Gedaref had 70ml of rain. This year, it has had 600ml so far. These extremes have led to flash floods and desertification, which is destroying arable land.

“Last year, the rain didn’t come and everything was destroyed,” says Aisha Youssef Ahmed in the neighbouring village of Siraj Alnour.

More intense droughts and failed rains have ruined harvests and also affected livestock: the cows that used to grow big and strong are skinny and often have to be sold off. Ahmed, 65, never thought that “rich, lush and productive” Gedaref would become a place “where everything has got worse”.

But while floods from overflowing wadis are washing away fertile topsoils or morphing farmland into unworkable shapes, the annual riverbank floods that people relied on to grow watermelons have declined due to heat, evaporation and dam construction in Sudan and across the border in Ethiopia.

“The river level has changed over the past 15 or 20 years,” says Wad Hassan’s chief, Ahmed Omar, standing on a rock next to the water where men paddle out in canoes to catch ever more scarce fish. “[The water level] used to be much higher.”

Omar, 60, has seven children, all of whom will become farmers in a state where most people farm and more than half the population lives below the poverty line.

Only a few children make the two-hour walk from Siraj Alnour – home to about 220 families – to a village that has a school. The scorching temperatures so exhaust and dizzy the children that they often have to be put to bed after school. Others are told to play only in the sparse patches of shade offered by thorn trees.

A farmer checks fields of sorghum, sesame and maize in Gedaref state

“Summer was always hot, but the winters are getting hotter. It used to be cooler, like 15C-20C” says Siraj Alnour’s chief, Idriss Mohammed Abdallah, who remembers the many trees of his boyhood in the 1970s. “Year after year they disappeared and the forest shrank as the village grew.”

It was then that the desert and gullies moved in.

“We had to shift here because the land was moving and pushed us back,” he says, standing in one of many gullies that threatens the new village.

“Now it depends on the trees, as the desert is moving towards us. People won’t be able to settle here. They won’t stay in the same place,” he says – even though “there is nowhere else to go” for farmers in one of Sudan’s most important breadbaskets.

Khalid Hashim Ibrahim, the state agricultural coordinator, says: “All of Sudan is affected by the low production in Gedaref, and also the production here is exported to other countries, especially neighbouring countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea and also the Gulf countries, like Saudi and the Emirates – for animals and food. This is very clear if you go to the north of the state. Some agricultural areas [have] now become sand soil.”

By way of example, Ibrahim points to Butana village’s population shrinking from 72,000 to about 12,000 seasonally, and the resulting conflicts over grazing lands or services in swelling cities.

The UN development programme has been running pilot climate change adaptation programmes in Butana, Wad Hassan and Sirag Elnour to try to stop good soils from shifting or drying up, and farmers waiting on rains and grains to survive.

Solar-powered water pumps have eased the reliance on rain-fed agriculture and allowed people to plant a greater range of crops. “Now, because of these extra irrigation methods, we can grow all vegetables,” says Omar.

Between the houses lie many community gardens full of tangled vines. Farmers proudly show off two varieties of cucumber and kiss some of the fruits of their newfound, year-round irrigation.

The ‘women’s garden’ in Wad Hassan village

Small nurseries – comprising of a few rows of mud and wire mesh frames – are growing thousands of seedlings into trees, which are planted around homes and fields for protection against the elements. The introduction of butane gas has stopped people from using charcoal, while heavy fines are imposed on anyone who cuts down trees – which people now understand are their only defence.

Unless people really start working to save Gedaref’s soils, says Ibrahim, “the future is very dark”.

“The period between the 1970s to 2000 was very comfortable here in Gedaref, but now there are some big problems,” says Khalid Hisham Ibrahim, echoing the view of several farmers. “Low productivity, high temperatures and high fluctuation of rainfall … There is a consensus about this phenomena,” as well as about climate change-related health issues like increasing outbreaks of malaria.

Ibrahim, who farms to supplement his tiny government salary, has wondered whether he should leave one of Sudan’s only peaceful patches of green to find work in the capital, Khartoum, or – like thousands of others – cross the deserts and the seas for a new life.

“No, Khartoum not good – to Gulf countries, to other countries,” he says, before guffawing at his next thought. “Maybe migrate to America!”

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