Drought and food security in Cuba: between science and intuition

With the support of the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and funding from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), Cuban farmers are able to improve drought management with strengthened communication channels: they now have a say in what information they have, when they get it, and what decisions they make with it.

“When water was abundant, WFP donated a windmill that allowed us to extract plenty of water from the lagoon, and pump it to where the animals are,” he says.

“Can we see it? The lagoon, I mean.”

“You are standing right on it…”

Francisco Alonso is a 61-year-old farmer who has lived his entire life in the stretch of land that we visited, located in the eastern part of Cuba, in Granma province, 30 km away from the provincial capital and 700 km away from Havana.

Until a decade ago, the “lagoon” he showed us supplied enough water for food production, livestock rearing, and domestic use. Now it is covered in dried-out grass. In the early 2000’s, WFP provided a windmill and pumping system to support food production by local farmers. There was plenty of water then, but that is no longer the case.

“It never occurred to anyone in my family that we would live anywhere else but here,” says Alonso. “Until the other day, that is.”

“I feel it is raining even less than normal”

By “the other day”, Francisco Alonso means more than a decade ago. Cuba is suffering the worst drought ever recorded. The Alonso family has no memory of such a severe drought.

“At this time of the year it is not unusual that there isn’t much rain, but this year is even less than normal. I can tell, maybe it’s my guajiro’s intuition,” he says, using a colloquial term used for Cuban farmers.

Alonso’s intuition is not wrong.

This map from the National Institute of Meteorology shows in yellow the central and eastern parts of the country where rainfall has been “below average” in 2017. These are the areas where WFP and UNDP are focusing their technical support.

Traditionally, this region has been producing a large part of the food consumed in the country and until recently, nobody questioned the “natural” sustainability of its agriculture.

Adaptation, information and resilience

Despite coming from a farming family, Alonso only became a farmer in 2008, when he received land from the government. This was part of a process to enable the private use of idle state land for food production.

According to Alonso, he works the land by vocation and tradition, but without the scientific knowledge. What he does know is that nowadays he must buy a tank of water every two days for his 30 horses to drink.

He says that the project for drought management “will not bring the water back, because we can no longer count on there being water”. “What we need is more information on what is happening in the region and on the land we farm. With more knowledge, we’ll be able to work with more certainty. To act, you have to know,” he adds.

Francisco Alonso is part of a group of Cuban farmers who have to play a part in developing a shared knowledge.

“Faster than the drought”

Alonso participates in the design of a comprehensive drought management plan, together with experts from the Meteorological Institute, the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, representatives from local government, WFP and UNDP. This initiative considers information as a strategic resource and addresses questions such as:

What prevents producers like Francisco Alonso to access the required information to make timely decisions regarding the impact of drought on their production? Is the information being communicated adequately to these farmers? What kind of information to they need to take decisions regarding drought risk and damage? How can these producers be actively involved in the system that gathers and manages information to ensure that it truly benefits them?

Questions like these have been central to the work and each person has a role in developing a more effective system to develop knowledge and manage drought-related information.

“We forget about the drought when it rains a little, and this is not acceptable. We need to be faster than the drought, to be ready when it moves in,” says Alonso.

Since 2016, more than one hundred people have been working together in workshops and field visits to find ways to bridge the gap between monitoring drought and being able to respond to it.

  • Funded by ECHO, 20,000 producers from 40 cooperatives, and over 1,000 decision makers in local governments will benefit from the clear, relevant and timely information on drought that this project will generate.
  • In the process, 100 monitoring and forecasting experts and 160 water operation specialists in Santiago de Cuba will have improved capacity for information management relating to droughts.
  • Additionally, nearly one million people benefit from a more comprehensive drought management system, designed though a participatory process placing emphasis on the needs of vulnerable groups.

Marianela González, World Food Programme Insight

July 11, 2017

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