On the frontlines of extreme weather

How to grow a bumper crop and other tales of fortitude from communities around the world that are determined to survive—and thrive—in the face of new challenges brought by climate change.

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In early March, before winter was even officially over, it hit 77 degrees Fahrenheit outside Oxfam’s headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. That spring-like day, the warmest March 9 in history and five degrees hotter than the previous March 9 record-breaker in 2000, felt pretty good—until you stopped to think about what it really meant.

Just days before, climate watchers had reported a temporary, but troubling spike: on March 3, average temperatures in the northern hemisphere climbed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for the first time ever. Granted, it wasn’t a global rise, yet, and it was fueled by another weather phenomenon known as El Niño, but that two-degree benchmark is widely accepted as the turning point after which the warming of our planet will bring devastating consequences to millions and millions of people.

Rising sea levels, floods, drought, food and water shortages—climate change and the extreme weather that it fuels means all of that. Those consequences are already swallowing countless numbers of the world’s poorest people.

But equipped with the right tools and knowledge, local communities can do a great deal to ensure their well-being in the face of so much unpredictability. Take something as simple as a small loan—unavailable to many people around the world who live in areas too remote for banks to bother with. Launching a small business with the help of a loan can provide a farming family with the buffer it needs to weather a poor harvest. And by learning new growing techniques, such as shifting to organic fertilizer and changing cultivation times, farmers stand a chance of avoiding some of those poor harvests. When aid groups help communities make smart, strategic investments like these, they can go a long way toward building the resilience of families.

Don’t wait until the situation is desperate and then call for international aid. Invest in the most committed disaster managers of all: the people who live there.

Oxfam country director in El Salvador

Supercharged, El Niño slams millions

El Niño is a warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific that can change weather systems, and consequently growing seasons, around the globe. This year’s El Niño, supercharged by climate change, has been one of the strongest on record and has left at least 60 million people facing worsening hunger and poverty. And though the periodic phenomenon is winding down, the profound hardships it has unleashed will burden communities for a long time to come.

For families in Central America, drought triggered by El Niño has brought not only food shortages but a new worry as well: Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says causes a serious birth defect known as microcephaly. The condition leaves newborns with small heads and can result in physical and learning disabilities as they grow. The mosquito that carries Zika thrives not only during rainy periods but some experts also believe it does well in droughts in places where people store their water in outdoor containers. Standing water is a favorite mosquito breeding ground.

In early February, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus, first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and then in humans in 1952, a global public health emergency.

In early February, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus, first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and then in humans in 1952, a global public health emergency.

In the Pacific, where as many as 4.7 million people are facing hardship due to El Niño related droughts, erratic rain, and frosts, nowhere has been harder hit than Papua New Guinea. A country of towering mountains, deep valleys, and thick tropical forests dotted with isolated villages, many people there survive on subsistence farming and a few cash crops.

As rivers and creeks have dried up, many villagers have had to look for alternative sources of water, which can mean walking even greater distances to fetch it and facing the risk of waterborne diseases like diarrhea. And limited rain has meant severe food shortages.

“Meals are difficult for us now,” said Margaret Thomas, who lives in Danbagl village in Simbu Province with her father, mother, husband, and four children. “We used to eat two or three times a day. But now, because of the dry season, we are eating just once a day. Our diet is mainly the same things.”

And for Thomas’s children, hunger isn’t the only terrible thing about the drought.

“When they have food, they go to school, but when they don’t they stay at home,” she said. “They are missing two or three days of school due to lack of food. ... If they go to school without eating they will faint.”

Ethiopia has also taken a hard hit. At the start of the new year, more than 10 million people needed humanitarian aid—on top of the nearly eight million already receiving support through the country’s safety net program. Months of erratic or failed rains made worse by El Niño have led to one of the worst droughts there in 50 years, robbing families of their harvests and of the livestock on which they depend for both food and income.

For many rural Ethiopian families, owning a herd of cows or goats is like having money in the bank: When they need cash to pay for household necessities, like food or medical care, they often sell one of their animals. But the drought has wiped out that option for many people who make their living as herders. It has killed more than half a million animals.

“All our livestock died,” said Lule Abrahn, who had moved to a camp for displaced people in the Siti Zone, where 80 percent of people earn their living from livestock. Abrahn’s family used to have 50 goats.

“There is no milk for us now and no meat,” said Abrahn. “I cannot buy anything because I got my main income from livestock.”

All our livestock died. ... I cannot buy anything because I got my main income from livestock.

Ethiopian villager displaced by drought

To help families whose animals have managed to survive despite dwindling pastures and water resources, Oxfam has been providing emergency livestock feed—along with rehabilitating water holes, helping bury dead animals, and providing some households with cash so they can buy the essentials they need. In the dry, wind-scoured landscape in the short video below, workers unload sacks of feed and oversee its distribution.


Watch at:

We are urgently seeking funds to help some of the world’s poorest families in their struggle with El Niño and extreme weather.

Building rural resilience with small loans

While emergency measures like water and food distributions are essential for people in dire straits, as important are longer-term solutions that allow communities to take control of their own destinies. When people have the resources and know-how to tackle the challenges extreme weather presents, they can make sure progress. That’s the goal behind Oxfam’s and the World Food Programme’s Rural Resilience Initiative, known as R4.

As the drought lingered, Askal Teklay, like millions of others across Ethiopia, had been worrying about how to feed her five children. In Hade Alga, Teklay’s village in the rugged northern region of Tigray, production of two of the community’s main crops—corn and teff, a tiny grain that is a staple of the Ethiopian diet—had failed completely and her family had recently received a food distribution to help tide them over.

But in Hade Alga, families participating in R4 have a secret weapon that has helped them cope: access to credit. It is one of four components of the initiative designed to give families a chance to improve their means of earning a living while managing unpredictable weather. The other three tools in the program are weather insurance for crops, savings groups, and environmental restoration which can reduce the risk of disasters like floods—and even drought.

Teklay, whose husband was sick and unable to work, had borrowed 3,000 birr—or about $141—through the R4 initiative and used the money to invest in a small herd of goats. In rapid order, those five goats became 15, providing her family with a much-needed source of income. Her family is one of more than 100 who are participating in the loan program.

It’s when you have enough capital to run the business that you can make a better profit.

A villager in Hade Alga, Ethiopia, whose loan helped boost his skin-trading business

“I sell the males and keep the females for raising,” said Teklay, who earned about 2,500 birr—or about $117—for the five she had recently sold, leaving her with a small herd of 10. “From the goats I sell I buy food. I buy clothes for my children. And I save money.” Already, she had stashed away 500 birr, about $23, some of which she may use to pay back the two-year loan with interest.

And though her new goat-raising business wasn’t able to alleviate all the fears Teklay had about the drought—especially if it worsened in her area and began to affect the grasses her animals grazed on—the small herd was cushioning some of her hardships.

For Teklay’s neighbor, a farmer named Mulata Atsbeha, the money he borrowed allowed him to expand a small skin-trading enterprise he had started about four years ago to help meet the needs of his household. The problem was Atsbeha didn’t have enough capital to grow the business. The 3,000-birr loan, along with some technical advice offered through the R4 initiative, solved that issue.

“I became profitable and paid the money back before the repayment time—all of it,” said Atsbeha, who was planning to take out a second loan. “It’s when you have enough capital to run the business that you can make a better profit.”

Harvests in a time of drought

The super El Niño has struck hard in El Salvador, damaging or destroying the harvests of nearly every farmer in the country.

But catch a boat in San Luis La Herradura and make your way among the mangrove forests to the island community of El Ranchón, and you will find something to cheer about: lush fields of corn and beans.

“In the past, I could never produce enough corn,” says Cruz del Carmen Muñoz, a farmer and mother of two. But in November, she says, “On an area of land that used to produce eight quintals of corn I was able to grow 32.” (Thirty-two quintals is more than 7,000 pounds.) And in February, a parcel of land she cultivates with her neighbors was bursting with corn and beans nearly ready for harvest.

Their secret? Farming techniques that draw on age-old and up-to-the-minute knowledge of how to make the most of what’s available—introduced by Oxfam and partner FUNDESA as part of a program to help 425 struggling families in 13 communities strengthen their resilience in the face of drought.

First of all, it’s a little-known fact that in low-lying coastal areas—where some of the communities we’re working with are located—farmers can access water without irrigation, even during dry spells. You just have to know how to get to it. Plow the land several times, and it rises to the surface from a few meters below. Do this at the right moment of the year, and you create a game-changer: a third annual growing season.

Next, plant the right seeds at the right moment. Farmers here have turned their backs on hybrids and GMOs and embraced more traditional seed, which they can reproduce each year at no expense. But with climate change in full swing, traditional methods of choosing the right moment to plant can’t be relied on, so listen to experts who are tracking weather data.

Then, swap out chemical inputs for homemade organic fertilizer and pesticides that are not only effective but also safer to handle, safer for the environment, and far cheaper than store-bought brands.

The result: healthy harvests, even in times of drought.

“We are learning how to manage our crops better,” says farmer Felipe Cordova, “and we are teaching our children how to do it, too.” Now, he says, the future is looking more hopeful.

Zika and the lesson of the fish

Taking the advice of people living on the frontline of a crisis can be hugely important in tackling it—even one as big as Zika. In El Salvador, that’s what water and sanitation experts have been doing: listening to the locals.

Along with fumigating homes and distributing mosquito nets to fight the spread of the virus, the government and its local partners have been distributing live fish to households that keep standing water around for chores like laundry and dishes. The fish eat the mosquito larvae that grow in the water—a natural, cheap, and effective way to combat the virus. But at a recent meeting with the water and sanitation experts, community members reported there was a hitch.

They were having trouble keeping the fish alive. Some attributed the problem to the bleach they use to clean the water; others said it was because children sent to pick up the fish during the distributions were not as careful with them as they needed to be.

The solution? Future distributions will include training on how to handle the fish—a critical tweak inspired by locals and their intimate knowledge of water conditions and how the program fits into their community. Oxfam is now planning to distribute Zika-fighting fish across 14 communities in El Salvador’s Berlin municipality.

“What is the best way to handle climate emergencies in poor communities?” asks Ivan Morales, Oxfam Country Director in El Salvador. “Don’t wait until the situation is desperate and then call for international aid. Invest in the most committed disaster managers of all: the people who live there.”

Additional credits: In the opening photo taken by Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam, 80-year-old Kedjo Youssof waits to collect water from an Oxfam tank in Ethiopia. “The droughts have always been here, but this is more serious. I haven’t seen a drought as bad as this,” she says. “It has finished all our livestock. I had many camels, cattle, and goats. They are all dead.”

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