Sitting in the doorway of her residential house in the remote Murundi Sector, Kayonza District in Eastern Province, Verena Uwineza is sorting beans for evening meal on a traditional basket.
It is Monday, September 12. By most accounts, everybody has been affected by prolonged drought in this area.
The mother of two is one of more than 47,300 households bearing the brunt of drought that has hit the country, with Kayonza and Nyagatare districts in Eastern Province most affected.
Crops wither under the scorching sun as they try to grow their sprouts.
Cows die or produce less milk because of lack of forage and water because of drought which left grass and dams dry.
About 1,750 cows in Nyagatare District died last year due to lack of fodder and water, according to Gahiga Gashumba, the chairperson of National Dairy Farmers Federation of Rwanda (NDFFR).
Cattle prices in the affected areas of the Eastern Province plummeted from between Rwf400,000 and Rw250,000 to between Rwf80,000 and Rwf50,000, accounts from the locals suggest.
Some water that would be used to irrigate rice on estimated 1,000 hectares of land was released to save cattle, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
An assessment conducted by the ministry in Eastern Province revealed that between September 2015 and June this year, drought affected crops on 16,119 hectares of land in Kayonza District, 6,619 hectares in Nyagatare District and 750 hectares in Kirehe District.
The drought extended to 2017 Agriculture Season A.
According to the ministry, it is the first time such a drought has occurred in the country in the last 60 years.
Indeed, the severe effects of drought, owing to climate change, have weighed down the efforts of farmers, hence threatening food security.
This has left Uwineza, like many other residents, needing the Government’s food support for sustenance. The food rations are of beans and maize.
The residents say they did not harvest anything from their gardens last season, while they also lost large quantities of crops in the previous two seasons.
Uwineza said during favourable farming season, one could get Rwf1,000 per day in return for daily farm labour, but noted that the amount has since dropped to Rwf700 because of dry season.
“Even with that income, one can hardly get where to buy food after crop production failed owing to drought,” Uwineza told The New Times from her residence, adding that the food support they get from the Government is their lifeline.
Afisa Nyiraneza, a resident of Murundi Sector in Kayonza District, said she has been growing cassava, beans and Irish potatoes but drought has wrecked her efforts as her crops withered.
She is also the beneficiary of the Government’s food support that comes under the food for work framework, whereby the beneficiary does public works and gets food – consisting of maize and beans.
Nyiraneza’s family has been receiving 33 kilogrammes – 21 for maize and 11 for beans – per week.
“We have no other source of food as this area has been ravaged by drought. If it was not for this food aid, things would be worse,” the 33-year-old mother of five told The New Times.
“The public works are in line with encouraging people to work for common development instead of being spoon-fed,” she added.
The “Climate Change And Food Security: Risks And Responses” report published by Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2016, stated that “the effects of climate change on our ecosystems are already severe and widespread, and ensuring food security in the face of climate change is among the most daunting challenges facing humankind.”
Water provision for cows
Gashumba, the chairperson of NDFFR, said the water reservoirs for cows easily dry up during dry season and that though dams are being built, reliance on rainwater to refill the dams is not sustainable with prolonged drought.
“There is a need to pump water, mainly from the Akagera River so that it can be used by dairy farmers,” he said.
Dr Théogène Rutagwenda, the director-general for animal resources at the Ministry of Agriculture, cited several government initiatives to mitigate the drought impact.
These include construction of valley dams, whereby six have already been built in Nyagatare District, six in Kayonza District and one in Gatsibo District.
Each dam has capacity to contain 40,000 cubic metres of water.
Rutagwenda, who is also the chairperson of the Task Force on Response to Drought and Food Shortage, said, among other interventions, efforts are in place to pump Akagera River water to channel it into cattle troughs in Rwimiyaga Sector of Nyagatare District.
Need for grass growing and storage
Dr Théogène Rutagwenda, the director-general for animal resources at the Ministry of Agriculture, said they are advising livestock farmers to grow two nutritious perennial grass species; Chloris gayana and penicum maximum, for energy provision.
Also, two legume species of lucerne and lablab rich in protein for cows is being grown on fields in the province.
“These feeds can be given to cows while fresh and once they are dry, they can be harvested and stored,” he said.
Gashumba, of NDFFR, noted that farmers need subsidy for machines or equipment to compress and fasten grass for proper storage and use during drought season.
Modeste Rudahikwa, a dairy farmer in Kayonza, said the drought has affected his milk production. His cows produce only 10 litres of milk per day compared to 80 litres he used to get from the same 16 cows per day previously.
Rudahikwa said the new system of growing fodder and storing it as well as have enough and constant supply of water in dams for cows is essential.
Systematic irrigation as a means to tackle drought
Last week, the Rwanda Meteorology Agency announced that in the September-December period, there will be normal and below normal rain (from 450mm to less than 350mm) in Eastern Province and other parts of the country based on prediction data.
Farmers in the east said they expect to get good harvest in December if they receive enough rainfall.
The Ministry of Agriculture,, Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) and farmers consider sustainable and systematic irrigation the best and long-term solution to drought as reliance on rain-fed farming is not sustainable.
Speaking to The New Times on Wednesday, Innocent Nzeyimana, head of land husbandry, irrigation and mechanisation at RAB, said 15,000 hectares of land will be irrigated from this year unti 2018 in Eastern Province.
Parts of the three districts of Kayonza, Nyagatare and Gatsibo that were worst affected by drought host swathes of Akagera National Park.
“We are thinking of the feasibility of a project to take water there from Akagera River. That project should be comprehensive enough to address the issue of irrigation, water for cattle and domestic use in a bid to tackle the drought issue in a sustainable way in the three districts of Kayonza, Nyagatare and Gatsibo,” Nzeyimana said, adding that consultants are being looked for to study the project that might start by 2018.
Currently, irrigated land in the country stands at 45,000 hectares, about 30,000 of which is in the Eastern Province.
Nzeyimana said the Government targets to irrigate up to 100,000 hectares of land by 2020.
Dr Vincent Biruta, the minister for natural resources, said during a High Level Event for Establishing a Climate Application and Prediction Centre for Central Africa on Monday in Kigali that Rwanda has recently experienced a temperature increase of 1.4°C since 1970, higher than the global average, and can expect an increase in temperature of up to 2.5°C by 2050.