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Climate risks and household responses to food insecurity in northern Ghana

Climate risks and household responses to food insecurity in northern Ghana

by Balikisu Osman

Negotiating a double-sided positionality | EUC | York University
Balikisu Osman

The unequal geography of hunger in Ghana

Around the world, millions of people are struggling to secure social, economic, and physical access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and preferences. In Ghana, for example, an estimated 3.6 million people, representing 11.7% of the population, do not know where their next meal comes from. Even more disturbing is that there are significant disparities and uneven geography of hunger within the country. While some regions have fewer percentage of malnourished and hungry populations, others have more than the national average. For example, an assessment by the World Food Programme estimates that the prevalence of food-insecure in the northern part of Ghana is 23-49% compared to 4-10% in the southernmost regions. This evidence of hunger in the northern part of Ghana is particularly staggering and deserving of concrete actions from stakeholders.

Against this backdrop, my research investigates how food system activities shape food insecurity in the northern part of Ghana. It further analyzes how climate change hazards intersect with socio-economic factors and processes to induce food insecurity risks and how households respond to climate risks which threaten their goal of improving food security for their families.

Findings: The realities and responses to hunger in northern Ghana

Pounding paddy to dehusk rice grain for the evening meal in Naaga, Kassena Nankana Municipal area, Ghana

For my research, I embarked on a six-month intensive fieldwork from January to June 2021 in the far northeastern part of Ghana. I adopted a mixed method approach collecting household-level data using questionnaires and complementing that with interviews and focus group discussions to give a deeper insight into the results. At the end of my engagements with farmers and officials working on food and agricultural projects in the study communities, four key findings emerged:

  1. Smallholders are subsistence producers, cultivating different crops (cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes) and raising farm animals (livestock and fowl). Nevertheless, they have poor dietary patterns dominated by cereals and vegetables almost daily. The detailed analysis of my field report revealed that smallholders face decreasing food availability from May to August and rely heavily on the market during these months.
  2. Although the seasonality of production activities generally explains the households' poor dietary pattern and seasonal variations in food availability and access, the poor access to proper warehouse storage facilities, functional markets, and effective transportation systems forms the roots of the food insecurity problems.
  3. Climate-induced food insecurities among smallholders are not just products of only the households' exposure to persistent climate events. Instead, they are also inextricably connected to the underlying socio-economic and political processes and factors, which are somewhat remote from climate change, but shape how food is produced, harvested, stored, and marketed. These findings emerged from the data analysis, which revealed the research communities' high exposure to floods, dry spells, extreme temperatures, erratic rains, and windstorms. At the household level, there is also limited or no access to critical assets such as tractors to plough the hard-pan-formed farmlands, mechanized or combined harvesters to efficiently thresh crops, warehouses for storage, and road networks to transport crops to the market.
  4. Smallholder farming households adopt diverse strategies and actions to manage climate-induced food insecurity risks, including using early maturing crop varieties, irrigation, mulching, seeking for casual farm labour jobs, trading in shea nuts, firewood and charcoal, changing diet, cutting down consumption, selling livestock, and migrating to other promising farming communities or cities. Generally, the households simultaneously diversify their response options out of desperation or necessity to feed their families, but they also sequence some options to preserve assets critical to sustaining overall agrarian livelihood.
  5. Generally, the households showed creativity and resilience in their responses to meet consumption needs and preserve their livelihoods. However, some of the response strategies or specific actions could rebound food security vulnerability or erode progress on sustainable food security and resilient food systems. According to the analysis of comments from the research participants, adopting response actions such as cutting down consumption increases the likelihood of undernourishment in women and children. Switching to early maturing crop varieties to increase crop productivity requires extensive use of nitrogen-base fertilizers, which releases greenhouse gas.
Dry season irrigation gardening for scotch bonnet peppers in Manyoro, Kassena Nankana Municipal area, Ghana

Suggestions for policymakers

In light of the above findings, it is critical for the government of Ghana to pursue a balanced investment strategy across various food system activities, from production to storage and market. In addition to the over-focused attention on food production, there is the need for increased investments in post-production activities in northern Ghana. Most notably, this could be in areas of rural transportation networks, decentralized farmer-managed warehouses, community-based food reserves, microfinance, and insurance to protect rural people against the seasonal decline in food availability and access, which have been significant obstacles to food security.

Additionally, policymakers could achieve far-reaching results by considering an integrated perspective when formulating solutions to address the social impacts of climate change and hunger. An integrated perspective recognizes household exposure and vulnerability to climate change in exploring the causes of seasonal food crises. Such an approach would help ensure that policy analysis draws on the externally generated problems relating to climate change and internal socioeconomic and political characters that exacerbate the climate-induced problems.

Lastly, the unequally distributed adverse outcomes of some smallholders' response actions serve as useful information for policymakers, practitioners, and grassroots activists to draw upon to build inclusive and sustainable interventions. In other words, development policy and projects need to analyze intra-household vulnerabilities when formulating and implementing crisis response programs so that interventions do not further aggravate the existing burden on vulnerable people’s health and the environment.