Some of Nkalban's yam setts that were ravaged by wildfire at Egambo-do
Some of Nkalban's yam setts that were ravaged by wildfire at Egambo-do

Wildfires, Climate crisis: farmers lose out

Since bushfire swept through his yam farm and consumed all the yams in the barn, life has been rough, tough and sour for Nkalbaan.

It was the hope of the 32-year-old that with the good harvest he had that year, he would break away from abject poverty. But the dream crushed when the 7,000 tubers of yam he had stored in the barn to sell at the opportune time were destroyed by wildfire.

Over 8,000 yam setts he had prepared for planting was also consumed by the wild fire.

This sad twist of life occurred in January 2022, but Nkalbaan is still living with painful memories of the disaster.

"I have struggled to build a future for myself through farming for many years now. But now, I have been reduced to ground zero. I have to start all over again," he said, looking dejected, devastated and hopeless.

To add insult to injury, the rains did not come at the right time, forcing some of the yam seedlings to rot in the mounds while those which sprouted struggled to survive.

The resident of Egambo-do, a farming community in the Nanumba South District in the Northern Region, said he had been psychological drained and lacked the urge to work.

Just like Nkalbaan, the over 8,000 residents of this community depend predominantly on yam farming for their livelihoods. Every child picks up the age-old craft of yam farming at birth, and that is what puts food on every family's table.

Their livelihoods are, however, threatened as changing rainfall patterns, rising temperatures, drought and other unfavourable weather conditions are causing the farmers to record low yields.

"About 20 years ago, we could plan our farming activities because we could predict when the rains will fall and when there dry season will set in; but that is not the case now. When you think the rains will fall, it does not fall; and when you do not need the rains, it falls heavily. This unreliable rainfall pattern affects our farming activities because when rains delay, they affect crop yield," 36-year-old Waja Upoalkpajor, another resident of Egambo-do, said.

Wider picture

While these farmers continue to record poor yields, many of them lose their farm produce to fire disasters.

As recently as January 18, this year, Kanjor Uyum, a farmer at Kpassa in the Nkwanta-North District in the Oti Region, lost over 8,000 tubers of yam and other planting materials to wildfire.

The Nkwanta-North district office of the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) put the loss and damage of this fire incident at an estimated GH¢150,000.

Official statistics from the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) shows that a total of 59,933 fire incidents have been reported in Ghana in the past 10 years (2013 to 2022), leading to loss and damages amounting to GH¢402.1 million.

The figures revealed that apart from domestic fires, which were at 23,394, accounting for 39 per cent of the total reported fire incidents, bushfires came second with 8,948, representing 14.9 per cent of fire outbreaks in the country.

The Director of Public Relations at the GNFS, Assistant Chief Fire Officer Class One (ACFO1) Timothy Osafo-Affum, said staggering as this figures were, that was just a tip of the iceberg as most wild fires, go unreported.

"These wild fires are so devastating. They destroy large tracts of agricultural land; wipe out numerous acreage of cocoa, rubber, oil palm and other plantations; and destroy thousands of yams and other farm produce in Ghana," he added.

Triggers of bush fires

While there are many causes of wild fires, the senior officer of the GNFS attributed the main causes of bushfires to bad farming practices such as the slash and burn method, as well as failure on the part of farmers to create fire belts before burning weeds.

He also said bush fires occurred because cattle herders burn the bush for grazing purposes while hunters also set bushes on fire to hunt game.

Scientists have linked severe heat and drought that fuel wild fires to climate change, warning that if concrete actions are not taken to break the warming cycle, more and worse wildfires will occur in the years ahead.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a United States (US)-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group, stressed that although human activities such as lighting campfires and discarding lit cigarettes are mainly responsible for starting the fires, hotter weather makes forests drier and more susceptible to burning.

Again, EDF said rising temperatures, a key indicator of climate change, evaporate more moisture from the ground, drying out the soil, and making the vegetation more flammable.

"As drought and heat continue with rising greenhouse gas emissions, we expect more wildfires in years ahead, especially with the fire seasons getting longer," the group added.

The impact of climate change on agriculture remains a major concern as farmers are struggling to keep up with shifting weather patterns and increasingly unpredictable water supplies. Extreme events such as such flooding or reduced water supply also threaten crop yields.

Aside the destructions wild fires cause to farm produce, there is even a grimmer picture.

It is the expectation of governments and policy-makers that the forests and trees will counterbalance and offset continued fossil fuel use. This hope remains a wild goose chase because severe and large wildfires could derail that plan.

Experts say that most forests are carbon sinks, which means they take up more carbon than they release, with the amount of carbon taken up varying with age.

Science teaches us that as plants photosynthesise (prepare their food), they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and integrate it into their leaves, roots and biomass. As this process continues over time, large carbon stocks are created in forests, stored in vegetation and the soils. However, wild fires and other disruptions discharge this carbon into the atmosphere, leading to a reduction in the carbon stocks that have accumulated over time. Experts say wild fires can also reduce the forest’s sink strength (capacity to pull carbon out of the atmosphere).

Additionally, severe wildfires can inhibit forest regrowth and can change the species’ composition of the forest.

Way forward

There is the need for collective efforts, involving all stakeholders, to address the triggers of wildfires. This calls for sensitisation and education of farmers on best farming practices to help curb the menace.

For Mr Osafo-Affum, the best way to deal with bushfires in the country was for the local government authorities in the 260 metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies (MMDAs) across the country to implement by-laws against irresponsible burning of the bush.

"There are fire volunteers across these MMDAs, so these volunteers must be supported and provided with the needed logistics to monitor and report possible drivers of fire outbreaks for prompt action to be taken," he added.

Meanwhile, Nkalbaan says traditional rulers and chiefs must also use their authority within the local communities to help stem the tides.

"During the dry season, when most of these bush burning is done, chiefs should send strong messages to all people in the community that anyone who sets the bush on fire will be severely punished.

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