Livestock-based adaptations

The impact of climate change in Africa


Strengthen the adaptive capacity of Africa’s most
vulnerable livestock-keeping households so that
they may find, test and adopt new ways of
coping with climate change.

The cross-sectoral activities needed to enhance adaptive
capacity are essentially the same as those promoting
sustainable development; an increased ability
to adapt to climate change may well in turn
yield greater overall resilience to change.

Communities most vulnerable to climate change
will take centre stage in research to enhance
their long-term capacity for adaptation.

The world’s climate is changing at unprecedented rates. African agriculture and pastoralism will suffer some of the greatest impacts of the twin threats of global warming and increasing climate variability. Africa is already warmer than it was 100 years ago; by mid-century, extreme droughts will prevail over large areas of the continent now relatively drought-free.

The risks are greatest in the tropics, where people are most reliant on natural resources, are most vulnerable to environmental disasters, and are least equipped to adapt to change. The more than 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa living on less than USD1 per day, most of them farming or herding livestock for their livelihoods, are likely to bear the greatest costs of climate change. The continent is also among the lowest emitters of greenhouse gases, making climate change a global ethical as well as scientific and development challenge.

Climate change will severely impact Africa’s poor livestock keepers. It is under-reported and under-appreciated that declining crop- and rangeland productivity will reduce the amount and quality of already scarce crop by-products and forage with which virtually all African smallholders feed their livestock. Less water will be available to raise farm animals, which typically constitute the prime asset of smallholders. And as rising temperatures alter the distribution of parasites and their vectors, allowing them to move into new areas, many communities already in poverty traps will have to cope with new human as well as livestock disease burdens.

All of this will force Africa’s livestock keepers to make major changes in their production systems. Among the most likely are the keeping of less-productive breeds that tolerate more heat and disease as well as less feed and water; greater reliance on planted forages, crop by-products and common range- and other public lands to feed ruminant animals; and replacement of pastoral cattle with drought-tolerant camels, sheep and goats.

Climate change will also impact Africa’s hundreds of millions of smallholder mixed crop-and-livestock farmers who will be forced to shift, for example, from maize production to growing millet, sorghum and other less lucrative but more drought-tolerant grains. These mixed crop-livestock producers, the ‘backbone’ of African agriculture, will also have to rely to ever greater extents on their livestock enterprises to cope with declining crop yields as well as more frequent crop failures.

Despite the central importance of farm animals to Africa’s poor and the magnitude of the changes expected to befall Africa’s more than 160 million poor livestock keepers due to climate change, scant attention has been paid to issues of livestock and climate change, particularly livestock-related adaptive responses to climate change. Little is known, for example, about how climate interacts with other drivers of change in livestock production systems. We lack analytical frameworks and tools with which to conduct such studies. We lack indigenous research and technical capacity to address livestock adaptation issues impinging on Africa’s poor.

Research being conducted at ILRI and partner organizations at the intersection of climate change and livestock is determining the likely impacts of climate change on small-scale livestock keepers and identifying options that can help them adapt to current and predicted changes. (Even if the more developed countries took drastic steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions today, time lags in the global climate system ensure considerable climate change will still occur over the medium term.)

The aim of this research is to strengthen the adaptive capacity of Africa’s most vulnerable livestock-keeping households so that they may find, test and adopt new ways of coping with climate change. An increased ability to adapt to climate change may well in turn yield greater overall resilience to change.

  1. Targeting hotspots of change. Building on 2006 collaborative work to map vulnerability to climate change in sub-Saharan Africa, we are in position to determine, through comparisons of projected climate change and vulnerability data, where and with whom it will be most useful to conduct participatory research on livestock-based adaptations to climate change. Given Africa’s enormous household heterogeneity in terms of access to resources, poverty levels, and ability to cope with change, we see need to target hotspots of change at relatively high resolutions to assess vulnerability to climate change at sub-national levels.
  2. Quantifying climate change impacts on ecosystems and livestock communities. Comparing the impacts of climate and other drivers on pastoral, agro-pastoral and mixed crop-and-livestock production systems in Africa will help scientists determine the specific ways in which human and climate interactions are combining to affect ecosystems, to quantify those impacts, and then to quantify the impacts of climate change and climate variability on Africa’s most vulnerable livestock-keeping communities.
  3. Putting information to use. Little information exists on Africa’s vulnerability to climate change and adaptive responses that are feasible in African contexts. Many sectors need such information to make better decisions and to build capacity in reducing the impacts of climate change. We propose employing a participatory process to identify the information needs of key stakeholders and the best ways of filling these needs.
  4. Assessing adaptive responses. Identifying which adaptive responses to climate change are viable for particular conditions and places at regional to sub-national scales will require superior two-way communications and a framework with which people can assess the viability of a wide range of adaptation options in specific locations. We envision enlisting world-class expertise to help develop state-of-the-art decision-support tools that can be used interactively by decision-makers from community to national levels to evaluate new technologies, policies and management options.
  5. Building capacity. In parallel with the above work would be programs building capacity within Africa and the wider research and development communities to put climate, vulnerability and adaptation information into active use for pro-poor development.

The five programmatic areas listed above constitute a considerable body of work. We propose taking the following collaborative approaches.

  1. Linking knowledge to action. We need to steer a path that clearly and consistently links new knowledge to new options and actions. The expertise of groups at the vanguard of innovations systems thinking—of getting research into productive use—at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government and elsewhere—is being sought and new partnerships initiated.
  2. Building indigenous research capacity. Our most important partners from first to last will be the next generation of African decision-makers. We aim to support African institutions in building a critical mass of people who understand the human as well as scientific issues in climate change and are committed to working on these issues in partnership with the people they are aiming to help. In addition to providing research opportunities and mentoring in traditional post-graduate degree programs, we shall offer a variety of distance education and electronic networks to help build virtual communities, particularly south-south, that are knowledgeable about livestock adaptations to climate change and influential in widening their use.
  3. Refining the global climate agenda. The impacts of climate change on more than 600 million poor people worldwide whose livelihoods depend on livestock need to inform all major climate change discussions. We began to engage mainstream groups of climate change experts at the November 2006 conference and meeting of the parties of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Nairobi, where ILRI launched its report, Mapping Climate Vulnerability and Poverty in Africa, and held a news conference that generated major press coverage worldwide. This project will organize special sessions and similar news conferences to position climate change and livestock issues at all future major climate change meetings.
  4. Taking collective action. The complexity of both modern science and African farming systems demands collective action. We shall organize competitive calls for adaptation research that encourage ourselves and our African partners to build strategic partnerships with private and public organizations in south-south as well as south-north cooperation. In many cases we shall be able to piggyback our work on livestock-adaptations onto existing agricultural projects.
  5. Conducting participatory research. The livestock-keeping communities for whom and with whom we work will take part in the research from the beginning and take centre stage in conducting vulnerability analyses and testing adaptation strategies. We shall identify with these clients as well as our traditional research partners the key issues to address in hotspots and then test adaptive responses in these places in participatory ways that empower our partners as well as advance our understanding.
  6. Enabling institutional innovation. The sciences of climate change, particularly modelling levels of human vulnerability to its impacts, are developing fast. To keep up, organizations working to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the poor will need to embrace change as earnestly as the farming communities they are working to help. The work proposed here would demand new institutional arrangements to unite the many fast-moving disciplinary strands in climate research in a single approach able to help Africa’s most vulnerable communities raise their adaptive capacity to new levels.
  7. Mainstreaming adaptation thinking. We will work to mainstream thinking on livestock systems adaptations to climate change into the animal agriculture research establishment, particularly in Africa.

The following are among the outcomes this initiative will work towards..

  1. Africa’s livestock researchers are fully engaged in the subject of livestock-climate change interactions.
  2. The livestock dimensions of climate change are mainstreamed into the broader climate change community.
  3. Approaches for livestock-related adaptation research are developed and tested for specific hotspots in partnership with affected communities.
  4. Hotpots for interventions are identified and shared with donor and other stakeholders to target efforts.

To review ILRI’s latest findings, please see a report to the UK Department for International Development, developed in collaboration with The Energy & Resources Institute, in New Delhi, and the African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi: Thornton, PK, et al, Mapping Climate Change and Vulnerability in Africa, 2006, Nairobi: ILRI, 200 pages. You may download the book in whole or in parts at

Clearly, the challenge posed by climate change on Africa’s most vulnerable people is a complex, cross-sectoral, multi-faceted one. We need to identify highest-priority areas, to pool resources and expertise through regional and south-south cooperation, and to find new ways of making these partnerships highly productive. ILRI is looking for intellectual as well as financial partners with whom to conduct this work. If you are interested to collaborate or want more information, please contact any of the ILRI staff below.

Philip Thornton: ILRI agricultural systems analyst, Edinburgh,, office: +44 (0) 131 667 1960.

Bruce Scott: ILRI director of partnerships and communications, Nairobi,, +254 20 422 3205.

John McDermott: ILRI deputy director general for research, Nairobi, +254 20 422 3207.

Carlos Seré: ILRI director general, Nairobi,, +254 20 422 3201.

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