GEORGETOWN, Guyana (AlertNet) – The effects of climate change are threatening the health of Guyana’s vital rice industry, prompting the South American country to take steps to adapt the crop to withstand flooding, drought and other changes in weather patterns.
As a staple food and a valuable source of export earnings, rice is key to Guyana’s economy. But the country’s agriculture - and particularly rice production - suffered severely from flooding in 2005 and drought-like conditions in 2009.
Agriculture officials fear the extreme weather may be only the start of climate-related problems to face the country.
“Lower grain yields can be expected in ecosystems where temperatures are higher,” said Robert Persaud, Guyana’s minister of agriculture, in an interview. “Grain quality is also very likely to be affected. Rice production will be threatened in some vulnerable ecosystems.”
However, Guyana is moving to avert or mitigate production losses through what Persaud described as “genetic improvement of specific traits and/or a shift in management strategies.”
Low-lying Guyana’s rice crop faces a variety of climate-related threats – saltwater intrusion from rising sea level and stronger storm surges, flooding that can submerge and kill plants at critical phases of their development, drought, new pest pressures and higher temperatures, which can affect plant development.
To deal with the problems, Guyana is exploring a wide range of options, from moving rice production to new areas to developing more resistant crops, Persaud said.
One option to deal with growing field salinity, the minister said, is to expand rice cultivation away from the coast and into more elevated inland savannas
Over 10,000 acres in Guyana are affected by excessive salinity, particularly on the islands of Leguan, Wakenaam and Hogg Island at the mouth of the Essequibo River.
“Rice cultivation on the front lands is susceptible to salt water invasion from the sea. The risk of this is even greater in the face of global warming and rises in sea levels because our (coastal fields are) below sea level,” Persaud said.
Choosing the right rice varieties, also will be important to address climate pressures, he said. Some types, for instance, can withstand delayed harvesting, which can occur due to bad weather or the unavailability of machinery. Varieties that cannot withstand delays in harvesting often produce poor yields and millers do not want them, Persaud said.
That means that “varieties that have elasticity to withstand (delays) are highly desirable,” he said.
Production practices for rice crops also will be revised to compensate for changes in the environment.
“New packages for pest, disease and weed management need to be designed,” he said, and studies need to be carried out to track changes in field pests and diseases.
DEVELOPING NEW VARIETIES
Rice breeders at the country’s research institutions are already at work developing new varieties they hope will be able to withstand both flooding and drought, as well as varieties that can tolerate salty conditions, said Dharamkumar Seeraj, general secretary of the Guyana Rice Producers’ Association.
“Because we are cultivating our rice below sea level, we must be prepared for an intrusion of salt water,” he warned AlertNet at a climate change seminar for farmers.
But more emphasis also must be placed on the development of infrastructure to protect cultivated areas at times of heavy rainfall or drought, he added.
“In periods of drought-like conditions, the emphasis has got to be on increasing storage capacity in the different water conservancies (across Guyana),” he said. The country has three major conservancies, or reservoirs, used for irrigation and drainage.
Last year, Region 3 - the west coast of Demerara - experienced drought-like conditions and the Boeraserie Conservancy dried up after a period of six to seven months without rain, leaving it unable to supply irrigation water to farmlands.
But “when there is heavy rainfall, the emphasis has got to be on our drainage capacity ... rehabilitating our drainage canals, ensuring that our sluices are operating properly, our kokers (gates) are functioning and all pumps are in operable condition,” Seeraj said.
Better management of conservancies and of drainage and irrigation infrastructure is key to protecting farmers and their crops from the effects of the extremes of weather brought on by climate change, he said.
"Management has a lot to do with how we respond to both drought and flood-like conditions,” he said.
The government of Guyana, with private partners, is involved in a variety of projects to help minimise the effects of climate change. These include developing shade “houses” for temperature-sensitive crops, drip irrigation systems that help manage limited water supplies, and hydroponics, in which plants are grown without soil using mineral nutrient solutions.
The number of demonstration shade houses around the country has jumped from two in 2009 to 14 today, with plans to build another 50 around the country this year. Farmers are visiting them in ever bigger numbers, Persaud said.
Some farmers, however, question whether the new adaptation measures will work for them.
Roy Doodnauth, a farmer from Dochfour on the east coast of Demerara, lost crops in the floods of 2005, as did most farmers in his area, and to renewed flooding in 2009.
Climate change appears to be making the rains more intense and making them fall over shorter periods he said, and the sun feels hotter too.
“Most times, cash crop farmers are the losers (with climate change) because when you get too much sun or too much water, you lose the entire crop,” he said.
However, he did not think some of the new adaptation measures, such as shade houses, were suitable for farmers, given their expense - $4 to $5 a square foot, he said.
“Because we plant in large volumes, we don’t think that we can get into that,” he said, unless the government was willing to help with the cost.
In terms of the drip irrigation, he said the initial investment required was too high for ordinary farmers to afford.
“If the government wants us to go into that, then they should assist us,” he said.
Drainage and irrigation, however, have a big role to play in helping farmers cope with the effects of climate change, Doodnauth said. In particular, storage capacity for excess water needs to be developed he said, and runoff water outlets must function as designed.
Persaud said his ministry was responding to the need for heightened education on and awareness of climate change and its impacts on farming.
In an initial survey in December 2008, targeting farmers in Regions 3, 4, 5 and 6 - administrative zones situated along the coastline that comprise about 25 percent of the country’s land mass and account for about 70 percent of its population – 90 percent of those surveyed knew about climate change and 78 percent gave an acceptable explanation of what it meant, Persaud said.
“Based on field observations and response to new farming techniques, there is no doubt that there has been an increase in the level of awareness among farmers on climate change and its impact on agriculture,” he added.
The National Agriculture Research Institute - one of the leading institutions for agricultural research in Guyana - is in charge of conducting and promoting research to improve plant and livestock productivity and resilience, the minister said. The agency also researches new farming techniques, supports demonstrations and builds awareness about climate change among the farming community.
In June 2009, an agriculture adaptation and climate change unit was created at the institute to aggressively pursue programmes and initiatives on climate change, Persaud said.
Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.