GCRF: CEPHaS - Strengthening Capacity in Environmental Physics, Hydrology and Statistics for Conservation Agriculture Research.

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Geological Survey
Department Name: Environmental Modelling


Two recent El Niño-associated drought seasons in southern Africa have highlighted the vulnerability of agriculture there to climate change. One reason for this is the dependence of much production on the occurrence of sufficient rainfall at the start of the growing season. This is because little water is stored in the soil profile.

One strategy for agricultural production, which is attracting a lot of interest in Africa, is "conservation agriculture" (CA). In CA farmers use minimum tillage of the soil and they mulch it with organic materials to reduce water loss. The use of appropriate crop rotations is also key to CA. However, CA cannot be offered as a panacea. Its adoption has different labour demands to those of traditional cultivation, and increased use of herbicides. There may also be competing uses for the mulching materials (animal feed, fuel). Furthermore, the success of CA varies between different soils, and so it may not be universally suitable. The evaluation of CA requires cross-disciplinary input. Part of this must be an evaluation of the extent to which CA can be expected to be more resilient than traditional cultivation under climate change.
African members of our established research network run CA trials, some long-term, and engage with policy makers and extension services. They and others have shown that there can be yield benefits from CA, but little is known about how CA affects the behaviour of soil water. In particular, does it improve the soil water supply (and so make production more resilient to delayed rains)? Furthermore, how does CA and its impact on water in the rooting zone affect the recharge of groundwater? There may be synergies if CA improves infiltration of water into the soil, reducing runoff and associated flooding and erosion, but there may also be trade-offs if more water is taken up by plants and does not serve to recharge the groundwater.

These gaps in knowlege about CA systems, critical to their full evaluaion, arise from gaps in research capacity. This has been identified through critical reflection on CA research by the partnership proposing this project. Core members of the partnership in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) and the UK are already engaged together in research on the nutrient status of crops under CA. Collectively we have recognized that the African research centres have uneven experience in the cross-disciplinary science areas that are key to address the questions identified above (soil physics, shallow geophysics, geohydrology and spatial statistics). Partners also lack the equipment and experience needed to undertake observations with modern methods used in soil physics (e.g. in-situ measurement of soil water dynamics).

In this project we will undertake learning-centred demonstration trials in all three African countries. At each site existing trials, with CA plots and controls, will be instrumented and sampled so that the fate and behaviour of water under the contrasting systems can be compared. In addition we will undertake statistically designed soil sampling to assess the variability of soils at experimental sites and to support statistical modelling for extrapolation from experimental farms to wider regions. The design of these activities will not reflect a conventional research project but rather will be focussed on capacity strengthening. Planning, execution and publication will be undertaken collaboratively by working groups with staff from all organizations, and the experiences of these groups will be recorded formally to provide a resource for future capacity strengthening at other centres. The activities will be integrated with formal training to develop relevant technical and research skills. The Capacity Research Unit at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are partners and will contribute to development and monitoring of the programme as an exercise in research capacity strengthening.

Planned Impact

This project is motivated by the catastrophic impact of two successive years of drought, triggered by El Niño events, in southern Africa. Much of the region has recorded the lowest rainfalls for at least 35 years. This has had a severe impact on the rain-fed agriculture on which about 50% of the population depend for their livelihood. Some 15.9 M people across the region are "highly food insecure". The cereal deficit for 2015/16 was 53% in Zimbabwe, and 14% in Malawi, where 30% and 20% respectively of the rural population have been affected, and while Zambia as a whole has had a grain surplus as a result of normal rainfalls in the north and west, nearly 9% of its rural population have been affected because of drought in the south of the country. Regional food-price inflation has been 9% and it is widely recognized that impacts extend to a wider contraction of economic activity in the region ("El Niño: Undermining Resilience", World Food Programme, Feb. 2016). This problem is immediate, but is also likely to become even more pressing under climate change [Cai et al., 2014. Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming, Nature Climate Change, 4, 111-116]

The aim of this project is to strengthen research capacity in three partner countries, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, essential for robust scientific evaluation of interventions to improve the resilience of rainfed agriculture in the region, and to understand their impact on water security more generally. The identification of capacity gaps has been undertaken collaboratively within the network. By the nature of this call, focussed on building research capability, the proximal beneficiaries are the target institutions engaged in research, through technical training, hands-on engagement in demonstration projects, development of lab. and field capability and a formal planned approach to capacity strengthening delivered by the Capacity Research Unit from the Liverpool School of TropicMedicine. The project includes a Co-Investigator economist, who will ensure that research planning takes account of the socioeconomic perspective on the exemplar intervention which are conservation agriculture (CA) practices.

The beneficiaries of the research capacity, however, are the end users of the research findings. These are the 15.9 M food-insecure people across the southern African region, and elsewhere on the continent. Most immediately they will benefit if government policies and agricultural extension programmes are better informed about the potential of CA practices to deliver greater resilience of rain-fed production and to contribute to water security more broadly. All African partner institutions are engaged in providing evidence to government and advice to extension services. One of the partners, the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute, is part of the Ministry of Agriculture and is established to deliver research on policy questions and extension problems. Our other African research partners, universities, are similarly engaged. For example, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources directly influences government policy on fertilizer properties, and partners at University of Zimbabwe include the regional coordinator of the Soil Fertility Consortium for Southern Africa. All partners are engaged in on-farm research aimed at delivering better advice to farmers. The research capacity strengthening is therefore targeted at institutions which already play a lead role in delivering improvements for farmers.

In addition our project includes an NGO partner, the Kasisi Agriculture Training Centre in Zambia, which is engaged in extension and training and farm-scale research which reach around 10,000 small holder producers in the region. This engagement will provide critical improvement of research plans developed in the project, and a direct mechanism for further on-farm testing of results and dissemination of findings


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