On Njia Panda Road in Dar es Salaam, our car lurches slowly from pothole to pothole, sloughing dirty water into the open gutters, trying to find purchase in the rutted mud of the road. It’s the middle of the night, and on the embankments beside the road, young Tanzanians gather in the soft light of barbeque fires and incandescent bulbs.
“This is not normal, is it?” Zaida Bastos is in the front seat, talking to the driver. “To have this much rain at this time of year?”
Bastos is the development partnership program director for Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the relief and development arm of the Anglican Church of Canada. She is in Tanzania as part of a delegation bringing 10 PWRDF staff and volunteers to southern Tanzania’s diocese of Masasi to learn about a maternal and newborn child health program the fund is partnering with.
She has been coming to Tanzania regularly since 1997, and she knows the rainy season was supposed to have ended months ago.
On the road ahead, the car carrying the other half of our delegation crests a particularly treacherous pothole only metres to our hotel. Its front wheels sink gracelessly into a deep trough of water, and the back tires uselessly churn the mud.
Two of the delegates get out to push. Several local men rush to help them. When they finally heave the car out, their shoes are caked with thick, red dirt.
We arrive in Masasi the next day, after a short flight down the coast. We quickly learn that the unusual weather pattern has not been restricted to the northern regions of the country—in many parts of Tanzania, we are told, the rainy season came late.
“Down south, we always have rain from November if not December,” says Masasi Bishop James Almasi. “This year, the rain started at the end of February. It was unusual. Completely unusual.”
Almasi tells me that it is during rainy season that most of the planting happens. While the rain, when it came, was sufficient, Almasi is worried about what this means for the future. If these kinds of disruptions continue, he explains, famine could be a real concern.
Further up Africa’s eastern coast, it already is. Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan are experiencing a particularly harsh drought, one that has left an estimated 11 million people at risk of famine conditions, according to the UN.
The current drought is significantly worse than usual and climate change is playing a role, according Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who also serves as the Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the UN on El Nino and Climate Change.
“Climatic events have taken on a rather different pattern now because of climate change,” Kamau told Inter Press Service (IPS).
The current droughts in East Africa are “more severe,” “less predictable” and are happening “more often,” he said.
While matters have not reached that point in Tanzania, all of the Tanzanians I spoke with took it as a given that climate change is having an impact on their environment.
Viktor William, who works for PWRDF’s All Mothers and Children Count (AMCC) project as evaluation officer for Tunduru, says that when the rains did come, they brought less water than usual, but enough to sustain the crops. If the weather continues to be unpredictable, however, it will make it difficult for farmers to plan accordingly.
“In Tanzania, climate change is really beginning to be real,” says Bastos. “People are living climate change in real time. It is no longer something you read about—they are affected by it.”
A key plank of the AMCC project is food security, as good health is generally reliant on access to nutritious food. According to Bastos, being proactive about preparing farmers to weather the challenges that a changing climate will bring is an important part of the program.
To this end, the PWRDF is helping farmers invest in more drought-resistant crops and farming techniques, including diversifying crops in order to offset low yields in one area with higher yields in another. Many farmers are now multi-cropping, growing peanuts, sorghum, beans and maize in addition to cash crops like cashews.
They are also embracing more drought-resistant crops such as cassava, and providing strains of seed better able to handle the changing conditions.
Outside Ruponda village, just north of Masasi, Joyce Mtauka’s farm provides an insight into what this actually looks like.
Surrounded by the low, leafy branches of cassava shrubs on one side and dry stalks of corn on the other, Mtauka is deftly cutting thick, white roots of cassava to be peeled and boiled for lunch.
Her operation benefited from support from a previous PWRDF program on food security that served as a blueprint for AMCC. In 2015, she travelled to British Columbia to take part in a weeklong seminar on farming techniques. She is often upheld by the PWRDF as a model of what their work in Tanzania can accomplish at its best.
When I ask whether climate change is having an impact on her work, Mtauka nods, explaining through an interpreter that she has branched out into different crops in anticipation of longer, drier periods.
“Climate change affects farming in our area,” she says. “This farming season, we experienced a problem, especially we had very little rain, and this is why I decided to involve myself in growing cassava, which is one of the drought-tolerant crops.”
Mtauka has grown her operation to the point where she now hires a number of her male relatives to work for her, and sells the produce commercially.
But according to Dismas Menchi, the project’s monitoring and evaluation officer for the Ruponda region, while the new techniques are catching on, not all farmers have adapted as readily as Mtauka has.
Given Tanzania’s booming population (according to government statistics, 78% is under the age of 25), the country enters this period of climate uncertainty with more mouths to feed than ever.
With weather patterns growing less reliable and with drought a looming danger, Bishop Almasi’s fears about famine may not seem far-fetched.