The warning was raised, it is worrying farmers.
“There will be a 75-80 percent chance of El Nino from January to March”, the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) aired in a harbinger forecast.”
“A below-normal rainfall is likely over the Philippines and normal to below-normal rainfall is expected over the region surrounding the Java sea and eastern Indonesia. Mostly normal to above-normal rainfall over parts of northern Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are likely. “ the WMO warned.
“Below-normal rainfall is forecast for countries in the region extending south-eastward from Tokelau to northern French Polynesia and in some countries in the western tropical north Pacific. With less confidence, near-normal or below-normal rainfall is forecast for Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga. Near-normal or above-normal rainfall is forecast for Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, and much of the Marshall Islands and, with less confidence, Samoa, Tuvalu, Kiribati and parts of Australia. Air and sea surface temperatures are likely to be above-normal for much of the tropical Pacific region and South America,” it added.
To the farmers in the said regions, this means mostly, drought, in normally damp places, leading to crop failures, especially for staple foods, thus threatening food security worldwide.
With temperatures rising and water sources diminishing, some farmers here are leaning on an age-old farming system that has passed the tests of time for centuries, to eke out a harvest from their crops.
Farmer Einstien Sibanda and his fellow farmers call it the “God’s Blanket.”
Mulch Keeps Away Heat, GHG
“God’s Blanket” is mulch, an old lesson for a new problem. “It is anything organic that is used to cover the soil around crops , plants and trees,” food security consultant Sam Adams said, “it is anything from grass, hay, bark, ricestraw, leaves, stubbles, pine needles , sawdust to woodchips.” The practice was used as early as the Biblical times in Egypt, Babylon, Mesopotamia, and as far as India where even seaweeds and seagrass were used as mulch. The English word “mulch” is derived from the German word “molsch”, meaning soft, beginning to decay.
Its purpose is more appropriately described by Sibanda : ”Mulch keeps the soil temperature equal, warm but not hot, and preserves the water moisture for a long time.”
The effect of mulch upon soil moisture content is complex. Mulch forms a layer between the soil and the atmosphere preventing sunlight from reaching the soil surface, thus reducing evaporation. It is often applied in late spring/early summer when soil temperatures have risen sufficiently, but soil moisture content is still relatively high. It primarily modifies the effects of high temperature.
Adams explained, “crops during their critical vegetative to fruiting stages, are able to make use of water and moisture in the soil fully as these are prevented from evaporating by the mulch, until the time the crops like cereals like corn or legumes like beans fully develop in one cropping period.” “It also prevents weeds from growing, thus cutting labor costs, and allows better nutrient uptake because soil is improved, “ he added.
Beyond preventing water loss, scientists from University of British Columbia (UBC) say covering the soil with mulch can actually reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. UBC researchers found out using mulch in agriculture can cut nitrous oxide emissions as much as 28 percent.
Craig Nichol of the Earth and Environmental Sciences at UBC said mulch actually reduces the release of the nitrous greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
In addition to reduced levels of nitrous oxide emissions, mulched areas also showed a 74 per cent reduction in soil nitrates, the UBC study discovered. Nitrates are the source material for nitrous oxide emissions and can also leach into groundwater.
Nitrous oxide emitted from soil accounts for one half of agriculture emissions that contribute to global warming. Emission levels are often higher in agricultural soil due to the use fertilizers and manure.
Mulched soils become a habitat of microorganisms, when it does, soil health is improved and therefore in yields and profits, Adams who teaches conservation farming in South Africa said.
Many farmers are starting to realize this, mulch protects soil from erosion, absorbing the impact of heavy rain, slowing down the water, which otherwise could cause topsoil erosion. As a result, more water is absorbed gradually by the soil and to a deeper soil depth.
Plants then receive more water. As mulch protects the soil from temperature extremes and evaporation from hot weather, it insulates the soil from both hot and cold weather.
Due to global warming most soils result to “baking” from high temperatures and forming a hard crust, but mulch prevents this phenomenon. Mulched soils always remain loose and friable making plowing unnecessary. Mulch soil is light, rich in humus and organic matter.
Mulch prevents light from reaching the soil thereby discouraging the germination of weed seeds. This means there are fewer weeds to remove from the ground ensuring water and nutrients go straight to the crops because there is no competition from weeds.
Finally, organic mulches break down slowly, decomposing, inviting beneficial microorganisms and insects like century bugs and earthworms, eventually feeding the soil with nutrients.
These are the reasons why farmers in South Africa consider mulch, God’s blanket.
And aptly so. Soil, perhaps humans’ greatest resource is endangered more so now by climate change, yet the Maker has provided ways of saving it.
*About the Author: Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.
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