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Changing climate threatens Tanzanian farmers

Girl carries water home. The water pump, only a few hundred yards away sits broken. Mlanda, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania – The stretch of road from Morogoro to Iringa cuts through Mikumi National Park before traversing the Udzungwa mountains. Dead baobab trees stand gray and fat against the seemingly endless stretches of dirt.

Changing rainfall patterns and a lack of overall water access is making life increasingly harder for Tanzania farmers. The country hopes to improve food security, nutrition and food production, but it may be impossible if things stay the same. The problems of climate change are playing out on the backs of the nation’s small-holder farmers.

The once white-capped heights of Mt Kilimanjaro are now scattered with patches of earth that are evident when passing by plane. The WWF estimated a 55% glacier loss on the peak between 1962 and 2000. That in turn results in a reduction of cloud forests which means less water for the 1 million people living around the mountain.

It is possible that the snows of Kilimanjaro could be a fond memory by 2020.

The importance of water is visibly evident when rivers provide much needed water to nearby soil. Trees thrive and crops grow for a stretch of a few hundred feet alongside the water before returning to the vast dead landscape. The higher hills fare well due to the proximity the clouds

Broken water pump. Mlanda, Tanzania

Broken water pump. Mlanda, Tanzania


With ample water farms can thrive. For most Tanzania farmers, it is matter of waiting for the rains to come.

“The rains changed in 1986,” said Thomas, a Maasai elder from Uwiro village in northern Tanzania. “It rained a lot a long time ago, but not now as much.”

Julias Ngulupa, another Maasai elder, says the problem is because trees have been cut down for charcoal. The rains were much better before the practice was started he said.

For the most part, Thomas is right. Rainfall in the region is declined by an average of 8 mm a year from 1926 to 2008, says Silvia Ceppi, scientific adviser for the Italian NGO Oikos. The problem accelerated some point in the mid-1980’s.

Ceppi’s research shows that the distribution of rain shifted over the past quarter-century. Seasonal rains are arriving later than they once did with increased intensity. There are some years where the short rains, lasting only a few months in September-November, did not come.

Empty rain catchment. Uwrio, Tanzania

Empty rain catchment. Uwrio, Tanzania

This combination makes it much harder for the farmers to know what to do and for their crops to work. Too little rain causes poor crop growth. Too much too quickly can drown out the seeds and wash out fields. The farmers are trying to adapt, but face numerous obstacles.

The Maasai in northern Tanzania settled into villages starting in the 1960s. They used to live as nomads across East Africa, moving with the better grass and water for their livestock. Despite settling to one place, they still rely heavily on livestock and plant crops at relatively low levels.

The dry water catchment, originally build by British colonialists decades ago, sits only a few kilometers from the village. The elders say the boys go roughly 9 km each day to bring the cattle to the water. A water source, installed by Oikos near the village, provides some relief for cooking and drinking, but it is the rains that will bring what is needed.

Dry riverbed. Uwiro, Tanzania

Dry riverbed. Uwiro, Tanzania

“We are trying to find our way,” said Paulo, another Maasai elder.

It is a similar problem faced by Bethod Mwange. He lives Mlanda, a village located outside of Iringa in Central Tanzania. The twenty-seven year old has a small family with two children. He too has seen the rain decrease over his lifetime. The rains he count on as recent as five years ago are no longer regular.

Despite the efforts of the One Acre Fund and the Tanzanian government, Bethod is sticking to growing maize. He knows of crop alternatives, but it is the maize that will still fetch the best prices for him. Like Julias, Bethod attributes the decreasing rains to the cutting of trees.

He says it is their fault things are getting worse. The only alternative he is considering at the moment is switching to drought-resistant maize seed. The stalks grow smaller, but do so faster and with less water than other varieties.

“The wells used for water are two kilometers away,” he explains.

Across the field, on the school property, stands a water pump. A blue plastic bag is wrapped around it after it broke a few months ago. It was one of three wells installed by Minister of Finance William Mugimwa, who also happens to be the local minister of parliament.

Only one is still working.

John Jackson thinks the minister is doing a “strong job,” but he is unhappy with the lack of solution to the water problem. Mugimwa visited the community in August. Villagers complained that the pumps were not working to no avail. It is the responsibility of the local government, he told them.

At a cost of 1.5 to 2 million Tanzanian Shillings (~$1,200), the local government is trying to raise funds by going door to door. Jackson says it has not been successful because so many villagers are poor.

The water presently used is a milky brown and used by cattle for drinking. Until the rains arrive, that is the source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing and irrigation.

The dry sand sinks under food with each step back into Mlanda. The rains are expected to arrive soon, but it is anyone’s guess when they will get here. The Maasai say they used to know when the rains would come by the stars. One would disappear suddenly, signaling the coming rainy season.

It is no longer the case. From Mlanda to Uwiro, Tanzanian’s wait for the rain.

Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP). 


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]