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Weathering the uncertainties of climate change in The Gambia

When Bundauda Samasa was a boy, everyone knew to the day when the rains would start and stop sprinkling the fields in The Gambia’s Upper River Region, and what harvest of groundnuts, vegetables, rice and pulses to expect.

Now standing in his bleached, patchy fields skirting Dingiri village as donkeys pick at the odd tufts of straw, kicking up clouds of terracotta dust, 57-year-old Samasa yearns for the days when life was predictable because the seasons didn’t change.

“The 15th of June was when the rains would come, and you planted your seeds around that,” recalls Samasa.

“Now the rains have shifted, starting late and not allowing us to know when we can plant and whether there will be enough water for what we’ve sown.”

Bubu Jallow, a meteorologist and one of The Gambia’s leading climate change negotiators, says that climate change adaptation projects are vital in a country where he estimates half of the land is degraded due to poor land management and climate change impacts such as increasing temperatures and drought.

“In the 1950s and 1960s we would record in some places 2,000 ml of rain,” he said.

“Now if we record 800 ml, that’s a good season.”

Jallow says that in the 1960s, there was enough rain for Gambian farmers to cultivate rice, the country’s key subsistence crop, twice a year. But now, with three quarters of the population still reliant on farming for their livelihoods, changing rainfall might mean no rice harvest at all for many, as well as little chance of growing groundnuts – the nation’s main cash crop.

Deforestation has also contributed to reduced rainfall, while allowing storms and flash floods to wash away fertile soils, bringing gradual desertification as sands roll in and turn once-rich farmland into uncultivable dunes.

“Unfortunately, due to population growth and demand for urbanization, we have lost 97,000 hectares of forest land – from [a total of] 523,000 hectares – since 1997,” says Lamin Dibba, The Gambia’s Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Natural Resources.

But over the past few years, UN Environment has been helping people in this small West African country to better understand the changing climate, and arming them with information on how to adapt to it.

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