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Rising temperatures, limited rainfall spell trouble for tea farmers

tea (3)

A tea plantation in Kericho County. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • Tea farmers in Kericho County are facing an uncertain future as temperatures rise while rainfall decreases, a new study by the Kenya Meteorological Department shows.
  • The report, the first of its kind, documents changes in rainfall and temperature over the years, in response to climate change.
  • Tea is grown in high altitude areas East and West of the Rift Valley, between 1,400 and 2,700 metres above the sea level where rainfall ranges between 1,800 and 2,500 mm annually.
  • But with rising temperatures and frequent drought cycles, tea is experiencing heat stress, resulting in yield losses of between 14 to 20 percent and plant mortality of 6 to 19 percent.

Tea farmers in Kericho County are facing an uncertain future as temperatures rise while rainfall decreases, a new study by the Kenya Meteorological Department shows.

The report, the first of its kind, documents changes in rainfall and temperature over the years, in response to climate change.

While tracking temperature changes, the scientists found that the nights in most key agricultural areas in Kenya are getting warmer. Kericho, for instance has recorded a nighttime temperature change of 24.4 percent over the last 52 years, and a daytime temperature change of 11.7 percent.

“This is not good news for the tea farmers in the area,” said Ms Patricia Nying’uro, a climate scientist and the principal meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department.

“Going forward farmers may have to think of how the tea will cope with the rising temperatures or if it will be better to move the tea elsewhere, to a more suitable place,” she advises.

The report adds to a series of research findings that have sounded alarm bells on the impact of climate change on the country’s agriculture sector.

In March, five scientists from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) based at the Tea Research Institute in Kericho published a paper in the Frontiers in Plant Science Journal, in which they said that data collected over the last 58 years indicates an annual temperature rise of 0.016°C while rainfall decreased by 4.82 milimetre (mm) per year over the same period. This has led to increase in soil water deficit over time.

“Maps generated in a GIS environment using climate data from the Kenya Meteorological Services predicted that the mean air temperature for the region would increase by about two percent by 2025 and by 11 percent by 2075, if no action is taken. Distribution of areas suitable for tea cultivation within the current growing areas in Kenya will decrease,” the Kalro study says.

“This is attributed to rainfall distribution and not amounts of rainfall received. The rise in mean air temperatures beyond the threshold of 23.5°C might also occur. Further, suitability of tea growing areas is expected to decline by 22.5 percent by 2075 while a suitability increase of eight percent is expected by 2025.”

Tea is grown in high altitude areas East and West of the Rift Valley, between 1,400 and 2,700 metres above the sea level where rainfall ranges between 1,800 and 2,500 mm annually. But with rising temperatures and frequent drought cycles, tea is experiencing heat stress, resulting in yield losses of between 14 to 20 percent and plant mortality of 6 to 19 percent.

With climate change, it is expected that the main tea growing areas will experience an increase in the length of dry seasons per year, warmer temperatures and or extreme rainfall intensity.

“In order to boost the adaptation and performance of tea, a key strategy would be first to understand the mechanisms involved in stress tolerance, and then use appropriate tools and breed for stress tolerance,” the Kalro study recommends.

The Kenya Meteorological Department study has also flagged Eldoret and Kitale as regions that are experiencing higher rainfall, which might present a challenge for maize farming in those areas in future.

“We have an increasing trend in rainfall where it is becoming too wet and it will be useful to start exploring other areas and regions where we could start growing maize,” Ms Nying’uro adds.

This finding was equally arrived at by a group of researchers at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology which is developing a Climate Atlas for Kenya, mapping out how climate change will affect food production in the country.

The Atlas is not complete yet, but so far results indicate that maize is shifting towards the northern side of the country which has traditionally been considered not suitable for maize production, as opposed to the highlands of Kitale and Eldoret.

“Experts have told us that an increase in temperature by one degree celcius reduces crop yield by 14percent,” notes Mr Nathan Ndalila, a farmer in Bukembe, Bungoma County.

“This information is not getting to the farmers effectively. Most small scale farmers don’t even know how to find that information.”

Globally, temperatures are rising, putting food production at serious risk. The World Meteorological Organisation reports that 2019 closed at 1.1 degrees warmer. In Kenya, the weather department places the overall temperature rise at between 0.2 and 0.5 degrees Celsius, but parts of the country are already above 1.5 degrees temperature rise, according to data spanning the last five decades.

Lodwar has been cited as an area of concern as it continues to post temperatures above 38 degrees, which is extremely hot in the heat comfort index, putting the locals at risk of experiencing heat strokes.

“The heatwaves are brutal. As farmers, we see what it does to our crops and animals. When there is pasture, how do we feed the livestock? Even the water table drops,” wonders Mr Eliud Ekuru, a farmer in Lodwar, Turkana County.

“All along we have been hearing people say that the climate is not changing. That there is no such thing. But in Turkana we are witnessing this. We are seeing water sources drying up. We are seeing pasture areas reduce. We are seeing our farmers struggle to produce crop during droughts,” Christopher Aletia, the County Executive for Environment in Turkana says.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the world has just about a decade left to stop global warming, if mankind is to survive. Across the country, both Agriculture and Environment ministries are engaging in various adaptation and mitigation activities, including tree planting, adopting climate smart agriculture and embedding climate change adaption into policy down to the county level.

Today, most of the counties in the arid and semi-arid areas have a climate fund under their budgets to tailor adaption and mitigation activities to the specific needs of their residents.

“If you're not a farmer it's hard to care about climate change. But look at it this way. The higher the temperatures the harder it will be to produce food, thereby resulting in food shortages and higher cost of food. That is why you should care about climate change. What can you do as an individual to reduce the impact?” Poses Ms Nying’uro.

As the country gets warmer, Kenya Meteorological Department can’t say definitively if there are parts that could become too hot for habitation, because as the trends indicate, those living in hot areas are quickly adapting to the hot weather, such as staying indoors during the hot hours of the day and only working or going outside when it’s cooler.