The “D” word…Drought.

This is a slight variation on an article that I wrote that was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, on Monday October 22, 2012.

In Eastern Ontario it has been a dry hot summer. Ideal for vacations, swimming at the cottage and just living outdoors. But not ideal for farmers.

We tend to take water and even adequate rainfall for granted here in Canada. But this year farmers in Ontario were suffering. Apparently corn crops are miserable. Many farmers who raise livestock are having trouble finding feed for them. Grazing fields have been dry and wheat crops have failed. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture, combined with the Mennonite Disaster Service have initiated a program whereby Western Canadian Wheat farmers can donate bales of hay for feed to ship by train or truck to their Ontario peers.

The first shipment of 200 bales arrived this week. They estimate that the need is more like fifty thousand bales.

I wonder if we are getting the idea that the climate is changing and that it will affect us. We have been relatively insulated from the shift in weather patterns. Air conditioning when it is hot. Ample supply of fresh water in lakes and rivers. Government subsidies. Social assistance.

In Africa the situation is more challenging.

Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Maasai herdsman in Kenya.

First of all, the shoes would likely be made from old auto tires. Or maybe you would have no shoes at all.

Your herd of cattle, even at their best being scrawny compared to what you see in Canada, are grazing in the open on land that is barren and dry. It has not rained in several months. You have to walk miles with your cattle to the local watering hole, a source shared by the livestock and humans alike for drinking, cleaning and bathing.

On the way to the water source one of your animals becomes weak and collapses. You have no choice but to leave her there. Hyenas and vultures will take care of the rest.

Traditionally you have always relied on your animals as your source of wealth and many years ago you moved with your extended family from region to region, building a new village as you relocated and following the rain and grass for your animals.

Early in the 1900’s the British colonialists arrived saw your land as being not “owned” by anyone. Ignoring your traditions, they quickly set to work according to their laws and customs to purchase land for themselves and erect fences. You and your animals became gradually squeezed to less favourable locales. The city of Nairobi now sits on land that your grandfather used for grazing his cattle.

Rain is essential to your survival. In the past few years there have been increasingly longer periods of drought, often lasting for months and months. Your animals stop producing milk. Many of them die. Your “wealth” is drastically reduced along with your supply of food.

You have nowhere to turn for social support. Food prices in general escalate, in part because of lack of local foodstuffs but also because of the increasing cost of fuel to transport food from further away.

What can you do? Where can you turn? You might give up your traditional means of livelihood and move to the city. But you are not educated, have never used a computer and when you get there would be forced to cram into slum living conditions with others who are flocking to the city looking for work.

So you pray for rain. Your children go hungry. You scrounge for any bit of food for you and your animals. You rely on handouts from International Food Aid programs or your neighbours. You hope.

Eventually rain comes. Within days there is a tinge of green on the landscape. You rejoice that you have survived this crisis, emerging more poor even than you were before, but ready to start over.

Every few years, this kind of drought event has occurred in East Africa for a long time. Now, the problem is that this pattern is happening with increasing frequency.

People in tropical climates have recognized these changing patterns for a while now. They are powerless to change them. The CO2 emissions that are leading to these climate variations are coming, almost entirely, from the more opulent nations in temperate climates – regions that have been somewhat protected from the resulting changes. We may be happy to shovel less in the winter, spend more time on the beach in the summer but eventually the penny will drop.

This year in Ontario we have had a significant drought. It has been a crisis for farmers and food producers here. Will it become more common as time goes on and the climate changes? How can we prepare for this?

And I wonder what will happen to the Maasai pastoralists.

Here are some weather observations that reinforce the notion that patterns are changing.

Another “Big Day” for Kanyala Little Stars

One year ago, twenty Canadian supporters of the CanAssist African Relief Trust joined the children and staff at Kanyala Little Stars School on Rusinga Island, Kenya to celebrate the “opening” of the school farm. With a lot of hard work by the Kanyala team, financial and moral support from CanAssist, and a sprinkling of engineering advice from Canadian Andrew Forsyth, the school turned a dry open field into a lush garden that now produces vegetables and fruits to support the school, both nutritionally and economically. Some of the initial challenges included getting water to this dry property, fencing it to keep the hippos from ravaging the garden at night and enriching the soil to make it fertile.

This week, I received this email message from Mama Benta Odhiambo, the director of the Kanyala Little Stars School :

“I am writing to share with your honourable self and the CANASSIST-Canada Team that we are planning for a Big Event on Wednesday 25th July 2012 to celebrate the 1st Anniversary since our Farm’s launching by CANASSIST. This day-long event will bring together key local goverment officials and local groups and community members to see for themselves how the farm has changed from a drought-strickened, barren Land to a green, beautiful heaven with variety of fruits,trees and crops.

We will also hold a big celebration for the orphans and the Little Stars children, where they will be given fruit salads made from our farm produce on that day.

The Canadian flag will be raised high on that day both at the farm-gate and in the school to show our gratitude and appreciation to CANASSIST and the people of Canada.

We owe you alot and would feel happy if you allow us share this success wih the government of Kenya,locals groups community and the children.”

Val Horsfall and Erin Firlotte ride with students of Kanyala Little Stars School to the School Farm where the school and their visitors from Canada celebrated the official opening of the farm project on July 25, 2011.

There has been another remarkable surprise. The CanAssist farm and the hard work of the Kanyala team has been internationally recognized. Last month, Mama Benta attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland to present the CanAssist Kanyala farm as a model for mitigating the effects of drought on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. Quite a change for Benta to go from rural Rusinga Island to an international meeting in Geneva.

Africans know what to do to improve their lot. They do, however, lack the financial resources to put their plans and dreams into action. CanAssist is happy to be able to provide the needed spark to ignite this development. Following the Kanyala success, CanAssist has also started a second school garden in the Mbita region. The school has named it “The CanAssist Oasis of Hope”.

Congratulations, Kanyala Little Stars, on your success.

This week, several of the Canadians in the group that visited the farm a year ago gathered for a reunion of their own. They were happy to record greetings and messages of congratulations to their friends at Little Stars in Kenya and send them through is short YouTube video.

CanAssist supporter, Susan Potvin, interacts with children at the Kanyala Little Stars “Big Day” on July 25, 2011 when the school celebrated the official opening of the Kanyala CanAssist Farm.