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9. Man's socio-economic response to drought in the White Nile
M. H. Abu Sin
The Problem Stated
The apparent advance of the desert and the frequent drought occurrences in north and central Sudan during the last two decades have brought about a whole series of environmental, ecological, and socio economic problems, particularly in rural areas. These events endanger both the resource base and the quality of life in a situation of increasing human and animal population numbers. Decreased land productivity and depletion of arable and grazing resources have led to out-migration from many rural areas, and are all common symptoms associated with desertification, be it of a natural or man-made origin. The growing awareness of the magnitude of such problems explains the increasing concern among researchers, conservationists, and planners at the national and international levels. In the Sudan this concern was particularly expressed in the DECARP (desert encroachment and arid land rehabilitation programme) proposals first formulated in 1976.
An understanding of people's comprehension or perception of drought in such marginal areas is a necessary prequisite for the formulation of a suitable policy response. Their owr socioeconomic adjustments resulting from their perception must be understood and made a focus for programmes to combat the drought hazard. Without this a full and proper use of the local potential resources within the limits prescribed to maintain a safe ecological balance cannot be attained.
The area to the west of the White Nile between Omdurman in the north and Ed Dueim in the south is representative of many of the main non-riverain arid and semi-arid ecosystems of central Sudan. Here drought is a significant factor in disturbing the rural economy. This is because these people depend almost entirely on local natural resources for their livelihood, as they are traditional rainland farmers and livestock breeders. Their low level of technology and inability to deal with the causes of drought means that they must adapt to it to minimize their actual or potential losses.
The delicate balance between nature's provision and human needs is maintained only by the set of adaptive socioeconomic adjustments generated within the societies themselves. Rain failure coupled with growing human and animal populations have rendered the traditional adaptations less effective. Improved communications and increased contact with groups elsewhere have raised aspirations for a better material life amongst these rural folk, and rendered movement of people into and out of this area much easier than before. Under these circumstances the original ecological balance is not only less easy to maintain, but also less clearly understood by the inhabitants of the White Nile themselves than before.
For a satisfactory and stable new balance to emerge, not only will environmental and economic conditions need to be well understood scientifically but the people's initiative, experience, and wholehearted co-operation will be required. The process will require grass-roots planning upwards as much as, and possibly more than, central government planning downwards. It has been argued that grass roots planning can only be effective if people's perception of things is understood. In this case the crucial point is people's understanding of "drought," and how and why they respond to it in their own particular way.
This study is based on findings from a series of visits to the area over the last five years and a period of intensive field work in December 1980. A questionnaire survey was undertaken in selected clayland and qoz villages, to include 100 heads of household engaged in both traditional rainland farming and livestock-rearing in a simple form of mixed farming. These findings, supplemented by observetions and group interviews, form the basic hard data from which the conclusions of this chapter are derived.
The framework of the study is derived from the work of White (1973), and deals with three major aspects: what people perceive drought to entail; the range of possible adjustments that their society affords them; and the choice of damagereducing strategies to be adopted under varying sets of circumstances within their own society. No ready solutions are advocated but it is hoped that this investigation into human experience may come up with some ideas that could be adopted by planners at minimal cost.
Perception of Drought
In spite of the increasing interest in perception studies,
TABLE 9.1. Predictive indicators of drought especially those relating to climatic and other hazards, there is as yet no working definition of drought hazard with a wide applicability. This is basically due to the fact that perception differs from one society to another and from one environment to another. The pioneer work in "perception of drought" is that of Saarinen (1966) in the Great Plains, but this has a limited relevance in explaining perception of drought in the White Nile.
|Indicators||No. of respondents||Percentage|
|1. Stars, dreams, etc.||39||39.4|
|2. Northerly wind after mid June with much dust||29||29.3|
|3. Lack of cloud, poor early rains, intermittent rainy season conditions||19||19.2|
|4. Growth of plants||12||12.1|
Source: Questionnaire survey.
Perception may be broadly defined as the image created in the human mind as a result of the stimuli from the surrounding environment, both physical and cultural. It may be real or imagined and it passes through stages of awareness, response, and action. Through such processes the individual gets his "satisfaction," which may be material or otherwise. The complexity of the question is increased because there is again no standard form of "satisfaction," since this varies not only between societies, but also between individuals in any one society.
The perception of drought as a hazard is therefore very much an outcome of both the individual's and the group's perception of all the components of the physical, economic, and cultural environment. Within this framework perception of drought will also depend upon its severity, expressed in term of losses, frequency, and past experience. It depends too on the personal characteristics of each individual, his age, level of education, religious belief, and occupation, which in turn will be modified by the group norms and institutions. At the individual and group level perception is also a function of the accumulation of knowledge, ability (or otherwise) to take risks, and success in prediction. When drought prediction depends upon subjective elements such as dreams or "feelings" of the elders, it is very unreliable. A strong belief in God's Will- which in the White Nile is unchallengeable-Luck, and Fate also plays a major role in fashioning people's perception of and response to drought.
TABLE 9.2. Meaning of drought
|Most descriptive local word||No. of respondents||Percentage|
Source: Questionnaire survey.
a. Implies lack of plant cover, crop failure, and livestock losses.
b. Imply near-famine conditions associated with very low production.
c. Imply a drop in crop yields, which may be due to many variables.
Although perception is obviously self-centred, one observes in this area that the individual's perceptions-and therefore his reactions - are always adjusted to those of the group. When the village community, using the accepted prediction system-dreams, juxtaposition of stars, experience of old people, and views of holy men-determines that next year will be dry, it is difficult for the individual to think or act otherwise. Only in certain details can he use his own perception and knowledge based on past experience.
The main problem facing people in the White Nile is that predicted and actual drought rarely coincide. This makes them opt for highly flexible agricultural practices which allow quick adjustments in the light of how the rainy season turns out. For example, if a farmer starts planting his dukhn at half metre intervals because he has predicted a wet year, and the first indicators suggest a dry year, he has to respond quickly by changing the crop interval to one metre. At the same time the average number of seeds to a hole must be adjusted from 15 to 20 for a wet year down to 5 to 10 average for a dry year. Such a system of quick adjustment is the only possible option for people whose drought prediction ability is limited. To improve their ability to predict they recognize a "standard" set of indicators to help them in the selection of the most appropriate damage-reducing adjustment for a particular season. The uncertainty of prediction is illustrated by table 9.1, which shows that about 40 per cent of people rely on stars and dreams.
There is a wide range of definitions of drought, from those based purely on meteorological parameters to those based on the inability of an area to provide for the basic human needs of water and food in a particular year or years. Table 9.2 indicates the meaning of drought to people in the White Nile and suggests that it revolves around reduced crop yields, livestock losses, and low replacement rates. These are usually associated with rain failure, but other factors can contribute to this situation, including insect infestation, plant and animal disease, excessive weed growth, etc. Any year in which a drop in production threatens the welfare of the family and its livestock is classed as a drought year.
Figure 9.1 identifies varying kinds of drought. Under this classification it is clear that in the White Nile area what people see as significant is "agricultural drought" rather than "atmospheric drought." Similarly, though the area suffers from "contingent drought," "seasonal drought," and "invisible drought," it is the last which is most relevant here, People identify drought by its immediate impact, which also has future implications for grain supply and animal productivity and reproductivity. This explains their reference to it by words which connote great loss, i.e. mahal, jala, safga, and habra (or haboura) (table 9.2). With the exception of mahal none of these words describe the environmental conditions associated with drought, and even mahal is better applied to the consequences of drought, such as barrenness of soil and lack of plant cover, than to drought itself. In other words, people here tend to identify drought by such indices as annual crop production and animal reproduction. A dry year preceded by a productive year, irrespective of rainfall amount, remains in people's memories less than two consecutive years with low production, even if those years are wet. Even when the rainfall total is average or above average, if crops fail from other causes, such as plant disease, insect infestation, the ravages of birds, or maldistribution of rainfall in time or space, this will be a "dry year" and will be described as safga.
Similarly, in people's minds a wet year is a matter not of meteorological characteristics but of economic security (table 9.3). The responses here are the converse of those for drought (table 9.4).
In spite of the general group acceptance of drought indicators (table 9.1), the individual's perception, and hence adjustment to drought, depends upon the memory of drought occurrence and its severity. Every individual's perception and interpretation of drought is very much related to personal suffering, which in turn may depend upon such personal characteristics as age, family size and composition, and dependence upon crop or livestock economy. Instances of deviation from group perception are shown by the responses to the question about the wettest and driest years in the last decade (table 9.5). General agreement is evident in the more extreme cases such as 1973, a very dry year, or 1978, a very wet year. Yet although 1978 is remembered for its floods, many consider it a haboura or habra This is because seedlings were swept away by the water, resowing and weeding were not possible because of the soil conditions, and the crops cultivated could not tolerate this amount of water. The result was a crop yield far below average (habra). On the other hand, for livestock breeders this was a good year, because pasture was more than adequate.
Although people depend on memory and experience to help them assess drought and adjust to it, it is evident that the individual's memory alone is insufficient because it is usually only valid for a short run of years.
FIG. 9.1. Types of drought (After Saarinen, 1966)
TABLE 9.3. A wet year
|Measure of assessment||No. of respondents||Percentage of total|
crop production to
allow storage for the future
|2. High level of livestock reproduction||22||27.5|
|3. No need for
and low indebtedness to
Source: Ouestionnaire survey.
TABLE 9.4. A drought year
Measure of assessment
|Percentage of total|
|1. Shortage of food, water, etc.||23||34.3|
|2. Migration for work elsewhere||17||25.4|
|3. Economic insecurity||15||22.4|
|4. Danger of famine and poor health||12||17.9|
Source: Questionnaire survey.
TABLE 9.5. Opinions concerning wettest and driest years over the past decade
|Driest year||Wettest year|
|1972||7||1 0.8||1 972||4||13.3|
Source: Questionnaire survey.
Note: Only 9.6 per cent of the respondents had been farnning for less than 10 years.
The individual is also less likely to remember accurately the severity of a dry year if his economic base of stored grain, or his success in minimizing livestock losses, is sufficient to take him through that particular year without too much difficulty. However, it is evident that some people have better memories than others, and such folk play an important role in nearly all villages surveyed-in fact they are the source of the annual warning system upon which most of the people in the village base their drought strategy for the coming season. The need for individuals to supplement their own experience in drought prediction has increased the role of such experienced people-so much so that a class of professional drought-predictors has begun to appear, whose role is to generate and develop group perception and decision-making in relation to drought.
Socio-economic Adjustment to Drought
Mitchell (1974) has delineated the main responses that people can make in the face of any hazard such as drought. These are (i) dealing with the cause of hazard; (ii) modifying the hazard; (iii) adjusting methods to minimize hazard losses; (iv) advance planning to minimize losses; and (v) bearing the losses. In fact, with the exception of the first and second, all are measures of reducing damage from hazard. The people in the White Nile are unable to do anything directly about the rainfall which is the main cause of drought. Modification of the drought hazard is observable perhaps in the system of earth embankments (teras; pl. turus) constructed in clayey areas to guide and store rainwater in the fields. This system is widely adopted in other similar areas to the east of the White Nile. It reduces sheet run-off and allows more infiltration into the compact clay soils. Although this system is very effective, under heavy rainfall conditions it leads to waterlogging of the soil and loss of the crop even before germination. Under such conditions resowing and weeding are necessary. Ploughing to increase the absorption capacity of the clays and to control weeds has become popular in some parts in recent years.
Apart from the teras system all other responses can be described as damage-reducing measures and belong to categories iii, iv, and v. Adjustments to minimize loss include the development of the local warning system, selection of specific types of crops and animals, and a range of cultivation practices and animal-rearing systems. Advance planning to make the losses more bearable include grain storage arrangements, development of a flexible mixed crop and livestock economy, and a system for supplementing income through secondary occupations and seasonal migration for employment to the growth zone of the Gezira and its environs. Such adjustments are structured and intended to fit within the framework of present land use. The importance of each of these responses and their degree of success in coping with the drought hazard will depend upon the present system of land use in any area, the type of soil, the local level of technology, the economic linkages, and the social milieu. However, the response must also depend upon what the group and the individual perceive as the options open to them. For no matter what plans are made and what precautions taken, there must always be an element of stoicism that enables people to bear the privations and losses.
The questionnaire surveys were carried out in villages belonging to two easily identifiable and different land-use zones which merge imperceptibly into each other. First, there are the clay-plain and qoz-edge villages situated near the fringes of the irrigation schemes on the White Nile. Those represented in the survey were Arashkol, Soferia, and El La'ota (fig. 9.2). Here about a quarter of the people are fully engaged in traditional farming and the rearing of livestock, especially cattle and goats. The rest combine these activities with tenancy farming in the White Nile Agricultural Corporation irrigated schemes, which they manage through an elaborate system of division of labour and effort Having a refuge in irrigated agriculture they are less subject to drought hazard and less interested in making adjustments for it. Milk-selling for the flourishing cheese industry has provided them with a substantial source of supplementary income.
Secondly, there are the qoz villages to the west and away from the irrigation schemes. These were represented by Shatawi, Suq el Helba, Esh Shugeiq, El Karanik, Zungaha, and Habila (fig. 9.2). This area accounts for more than twothirds of White Nile Province west of the White Nile. Here people depend on traditional rainland farming and livestockrearing methods through an elaborate system of division of effort within the family and have less easy access to alternative means of support that are not directly dependent upon rainfall. Thus this area, being more subject to the drought hazard, receives particular attention in this study. In all these villages more effort is put into combating the ever-present fear of drought than in those nearer to the river. Nevertheless, irrigated schemes as sources of supplementary income and grazing for animals form an integral part of the broader adaptive adjustment made by the people dependent upon the traditional economy of the area.
The survey results (tables 9.9 and 9.10) suggest that the socio-economic adjustments to drought within the traditional economy vary according to: its perceived severity and frequency; the degree of dependence of the individual on farming or on livestock-keeping; the size and composition of the family; the personal characteristics of the individual; and the type of land.
Recently the severity and frequency of drought have been perceived to be on the increase, which has encouraged more folk to look for options outside rainland farming. This has been expressed in particular by out-migration from the qoz and into urban-type occupations.
The size and composition of the family makes it easier for some members to find alternative forms of income in drought years, even if they do not already have jobs elsewhere. However, migration beyond a certain point, particularly of the younger able-bodied members, makes the family less able to provide the necessary manpower to make the best use of crop- and livestock-farming possibilities. The survey provides clear evidence that this is so. Only 15 per cent of the farmers were aged between 20 and 35 years and 20 per cent of the manpower per family was working outside the area in any one year.
FIG. 9.2. Land-use sequence on Qoz and clay plain country (Arashkol-Soferia villages 37 km NW of Ed Dueim)
Large families with good herds of livestock and large areas under cultivation find it easier to make adjustments in emphasis between crop-growing and livestock-rearing than smaller families. In drought years movable capital has advantages over fixed capital.
Younger and more enlightened farmers seemed to be able to cope with drought situations better than the others, but often they resort to migration. This was a characteristic true of the unmarried and those with small nuclear families.
TABLE 9.6. Dukhn, sesame, and aura in the White Nile rainlands
|Variables||Dukhn||Sesame (harari)||Dura (feterita)|
|Sowing date||2nd week of June||2nd week of July||Middle to end of July|
|Suitable land and soil||Top of the qoz and higher slopes (better drained sandy soils)||Down slopes of qoz and areas protected from winds||Loamy to heavy clay soils|
|Maturity||90-120 days||90 days||More than 120 days|
|Cultivation practices||Planting in parallel rows 0.5-1 m apart, 8-12 seeds per hole. Thinned later||Dispersed in the field (wet years) or planted in holes 0.25-0.75 m apart, 10-15 seeds per hole, Thinned later||Planted in rows 0.5-1 m apart, 4-7 seeds per hole. Thinned later|
|Seed buried to allow quick germination by early showers||Raising of teras to stem rainwater, ploughing, etc.|
|Planted when soil is fairly moist|
|Thinning and regular weeding||Very regular weeding and quick harvesting||Very frequent weeding|
|Inter-cropped by kerkade, okra, watermelons|
|Drought resistance||High (average dry year yields about 60% of average wet year yield)||High-medium (average dry year yields 40-50% of average wet year yield)||Medium-low (average dry yields about 40% of average wet year yield)|
|Other properties||Storage capacity high (2-4 years in ground silo or matmura)||Main source of cash v. low storage capacity||High storage capacity (over 4 years in matmura)|
|Sour for birds||Multiple use|
|Preference as food||High: good taste, easy to prepare||Increasing prices||Preferred in absence of dukhn|
|Processed locally for oil production|
|By-products for domestic use|
TABLE 9.7. Peasant strategy in a simple wet/dry year sequence
|Crop||Average yield per makamas in sacksa||Average price persack, 1978-1981 (úS)||Cash returns||Crop combination (2makamas)||Total gross returns (úS)||Margin of losses in dry years||Average gross returns of wet and dry years||Percentage deviation from average of wet and dry years|
|Wet year||Dry year||Wet year||Dry year|
|Sesame||7.5||5||25||187.5||125||Dura + sesame||447.5||232||215.5||339.8||63.4|
|Dura||13||5||20||260||100||Dukhn + aura||470,5||236.5||233.5||353.5||66.2|
The type of landscape, quality of soil, and availability of land are very important variables in the choice of the appropriate adjustments; they influence choice of crops, size and number of plots, and the most appropriate cultivation practice for each crop, and are essential in determining the quality of annual pastures. These variables are the most important factors in shaping land use around each village (figs. 9.2 and 9.3). The relative availability of land and the alternate sequence of qoz ridge and hollow in the case of Karanik, Zungaha, and Habila have made farming adjustments to drought easier and more effective than elsewhere. Suq el Helba and Esh Shuqeiq have similar landscape sequences, but increasing pressure on land has made farming adjustments more difficult and less effective.
Though each of these variables is significant in itself, the survey indicates that family input is by far the most important single variable in determining the effectiveness of droughtcombating measures, both in crop farming and livestockkeeping. Unfortunately the evidence suggests that this input is rapidly declining due to out-migration and the growth of offfarm interests.
Socioeconomic Adjustments of Rainland Farmers
From the findings of the survey it is possible to group the socio-economic adjustments of those who stay in rainland farming and stock-raising into five broad categories (tables 9.9 and 9.10).
Choice of Crops and Animals
The three most widely grown drought-resistant crops in this area are dukhn, aura (feterita, which includes a range of varieties), and sesame (harari) (table 9.8). Harari is more drought-resistant than tag)/, the other common sesame variety. Most farmers (79 per cent) concentrate on dukhn and sesame. Dura (feterita) is mostly cultivated in wet years and in the clayey pockets or the clay areas on the fringes of the White Nile irrigated schemes. Dukhn is favoured not only because of its suitability to sandy soil and its low water requirement, but also because people prefer its taste while birds find it sour, and it is easy to prepare as food or drink. The relative merits of these three crops are outlined in table 9.6.
Within this framework of preference and choice, people opt for keeping small animals (i.e. goats and sheep) and cattle in small numbers. The average number of animals per family is of the order of five cows, and five to ten goats and sheep. Small animals fit into the crop-farming economy quite easily, since they supplement the diet through meat and milk, provide a ready source of cash from milk sales to cheese factories, and constitute an asset to fall back on in years of critical food shortage. A recent shift in sheepbreeding from the large reddish-brown desert sheep to the small garaj is to be observed in the area. The garaj is tough and like the goat needs minimum care and can subsist on poor pastures; it reproduces twice a year, has a high twin frequency, and the ewes begin to bear lambs at eight months old.
A Strategy for Crop Combination and Animal Combination
The farmers'aim is to minimize losses and ensure a reason able supply of grain for the future. This may be approached either by a thought-through allocation of time and effort to different crops on the same plot or by using more than one plot. Decisions depend on the drought prediction, amount of grain store, family input, availability of land, and size of engagement in livestock management. Table 9.7 tests the economic rationale of the people's preference for a combination of dukhn and sesame. Taking the indices of average yields and prices for 1978-1981 it proves to be the most suitable combination with the minimum average losses in a simple wet year/dry year sequence. This conclusion assumes that the farmer is "satisfier" and "optimizer" rather than a "maximizer of profit" under present conditions. Therefore, though the dukhn/sesame combination has the lowest wet year gains it is the natural choice, because it has the lowest margin of dry year losses(41 per cent deviation from wet and dry years average) compared with other alternative combinations. What makes dukhn/sesame a rational combination choice is its suitability to the ecological conditions of the area. Under optimum conditions, the best combination could very well be dukhn, sesame, and aura, with a deviation from the average of 58 per cent in the dry year of a wet/dry year sequence.
TABLE 9.8. Ranking of crop preference
|Wet Year||Dry year|
TABLE 9.9. Adjustments to minimize drought damage in agriculture (wet/dry year sequence)
|1.Careful cultivation of appropriate drought- resistant crops||21||28.8|
|2.Change balance within crop-livestock economy||19||26.0|
|3.Adjust cultivation practice of crops||18||24.7|
|4.Others + seasonal migration and all three above strategies||15||20.5|
TABLE 9.10. Preferred adjustments when drought strikes for two or more successive years
|1.Southward migration and seasonal migration to the Nile||38||43.2|
|2.Change mode of living within Sudan (i.e. out of agriculture)||29||33.0|
|3.Lean more towards livestock economy||11||12.4|
|4.Migrate outside the Sudan||10||11.4|
TABLE 9.11. Selection of suitable land for each crop
Wadi and baga
FIG. 9.3. Land-use sequence in the Qoz country (Karanik-Zungaha villages, 68 km WNW of Ed Dueim)
An equally valid set of arguments can be made out for the popular combination of cattle and goats rather than cattle and sheep. Although cattle are very vulnerable to drought, they provide a source of ready cash through milk-selling; and because goats need a minimum of care, extra effort can normally be directed towards cattle management.
At the sowing stage cultivation practices involve a strict adherence to dates, and a system of planting and choice of suitable soil for each crop according to its water requirements (tables 9.1 and 9.9). Next, proper thinning procedures and regular weeding are necessary. The choice of the suitable landscape and soil is crucial for success in mitigating the effects of drought on the crop, and farmers are well aware of this (table 9.11 and figs. 9.2 and 9.3). Where water is more readily available aura (feterita) is preferred, with dukhn taking its place on sites where water is scarce.
Weeding is a most important aspect of cultivation, second only to the timing of sowing (or resowing) and thinning. In many cases farmers undertake a first weeding before sowing as an integral part of plot preparation, which may also include fencing of fields against animal entry and burning of the old dry grass cover. Weeding makes the most demand on family labour and often the nafir system is adopted. This task is more difficult on clayey and loamy soils than on sands, since the former take a long time to dry, especially after heavy showers. The farmer directs his attention and effort during such periods to his plots on the qoz.
Inter-cropping, combining dukhn, kerkade (roselle hemp), watermelon, and okra, is becoming increasingly common. Kerkade is now the second most important cash crop after sesame and is increasing at the expense of food crops, especially on sandy soils. Kerkade, watermelon, and okra are grown intensively on fields close to the village and on the jibraka fields very close to the house.
The classical farming strategy of maintaining plots in different directions to cater for the uneven spatial distribution of rainfall over short distances is observable in only a few villages, such as Habila and Karanik-Zungaha. In most places this is replaced by a single large field running from the top of the qoz to the depressions and thus containing soil with greater or lesser amounts of loam or clay. This allows the farmer access to soils of different capabilities (figs. 9.2 and 9.3) and reduces the time spent in movement between several plots under the alternative strategy. He is thus able to adjust his personal cultivation strategy and re-allocation of effort more quickly and more efficiently.
Selling and Investment
The object of selling and investment is to maintain an adequate grain supply. The cash crops are sold immediately and livestock is mostly reserved as an asset to be used later, especially if an emergency arises.
Tables 9.12 and 9.13 illustrate this clearly: 54 per cent prefer to sell animals in time of drought (to buy grain) and 62 per cent gave animals as their security against crop failure. Again, the significance of animal purchases in good years as part of the plan to combat drought in future years is emphasized.
People prefer to invest in livestock because they are usually less vulnerable to drought. They can be driven further south or to the White Nile to alternative grazing areas. There is also the possibility of "internal investment" in livestock-rearing, whereby some can be sold to save the others. More flexible and potentially successful readjustments can be made in livestock-breeding than in crop cultivation in times of drought. These advantages are summarized in table 9.14.
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