How farmers can prepare for El Niño

Crop productionEnvironment and climate change


If you farm in a region that is affected by El Niño, you are probably preparing for uncertain weather conditions.  You may be expecting very wet weather or very dry weather.  Perhaps you are already feeling the effects of heavy rains or drought.  What steps can you take to make sure that you still have food to harvest at the end of the growing season?  That’s what I’m going to talk about today -ways you can reduce the risk of severe crop damage.

I’m going to talk about several ways to save soil and water.  By protecting soil and water you protect crops.  This is important to remember.  If you get heavy rains you must do the best you can to make sure that water does not flow quickly away.  Fast‑flowing water will take your soil with it.  If you are expecting very dry weather you should try to catch and hold as much water as possible on your land.

Here are a few of the things you can do to save soil and water.

Number one.  Keep the soil covered.  When soil is covered it is less likely to be washed away or blown away.  Soil that is covered will absorb more water.  You can keep soil covered with a cover crop.  Cover crops are plants that farmers grow especially to cover and protect the soil. Some cover crops are grown at the same time as the main food crop, while others are grown between seasons when nothing else is growing.  People often use leguminous crops for this purpose because legumes also add nitrogen to the soil.  Some examples of leguminous cover crops are velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens), sunnhemp (Crotalaria spp.), and lablab bean (Dolichos lablab).

Mulch is another good way to keep your soil covered.  A mulch is a layer of organic materials – usually plants that is spread on the surface of the soil.  People commonly use weeds, and grasses, and leftover crop leaves and stems.

Number two.  As well as growing or spreading something on top of the soil, you should also keep lots of organic matter in the soil.  Composted manure is a good source of organic matter. So are leftover crop stems and leaves that you plough into the soil after harvest.  In dry weather organic matter helps soil to hold water.  In wet, rainy weather, organic matter in the soil soaks up water.  This prevents a heavy flow of water from washing the soil away.

Number three. Learn special methods you can use to save soil and water as you cultivate.  For example, if you farm on a hillside, plough along contour lines.  Contour lines are imaginary lines that run across the slope at the same height, but do not run uphill or downhill.  On flat land you can use cross‑ridging.  Make little barriers, called cross-ridges, which cross the furrows at regular intervals.  This creates small basins all over the field.  The basins hold water after a rainfall.  You can also plant windbreaks and grass hedges to keep soil in place.  Vetiver grass (Vetiver zizanioides) is one plant that is widely used in hedges to prevent soil erosion.
These are just a few examples of soil conservation techniques.  There are many more.

And here’s the fourth thing to consider.  Remember that trees can help you to protect soil, water, and crops. Trees affect the way water moves into and through the soil.  As tree roots grow they make channels for water to move through.  Tree branches and leaves stop raindrops from hitting the ground very fast.  So there is more time for the soil to absorb the rain water.  Because less water will wash away, you lose less soil.  Trees provide shade too.  More shade means that less water evaporates from the soil.  This is particularly important in hot, dry areas.

In places where there are not many trees, there are often water shortages.  Rainwater will not stay in the soil, especially in hot areas.  It will evaporate quickly into the air or it will move along the soil surface carrying away the topsoil.  The soil will become poor and infertile.  Planting trees will help you reduce these problems.

One more thing.  Another way to keep crop losses as low as possible is to plant many different types of crops and crop varieties.This is called diversification.  This way if you have bad weather you may experience damage to one or two crops.  But if you have many different types and varieties planted, you will still have other crops that survive and yield well.

If you have already suffered losses this season these suggestions might not be helpful right now.  But if you start using these methods now you will be rewarded in the future.  Over the years you will see an improvement in your soil.  You will have better yields and healthier crops. The next time bad weather hits you might not suffer as much.  And your children and grandchildren will certainly benefit from your good management of these precious resources – soil and water.


  • This script was written by Jennifer Pittet, Managing Editor, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network.  It was reviewed by Bill Landesman, Information Coordinator, Rodale Institute, Emmaus, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Information sources

  • “Under El Niño’s (dry) spell”, Farm News & Views, Volume 5 & 6, September ‑ December 1997.
    Philippine Peasant Institute, P.O. Box 124, 1101 U.P. Quezon City, Philippines E‑mail:
  • “El Niño?” 1997, Notes from James Biscoe, Senior Coffee Research Officer,
    Tea Research Foundation, Malawi

The following organizations specialize in providing information and training about sustainable land use management that conserves soil and water.

Regional Soil Conservation Unit (RSCU)
P.O. Box 52840
Nairobi, Kenya
Phone: 254 2 520025/520103
Fax: 254 2 520762

International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
4/80 Jawalakhel
P.O. Box 3226
Kathmandu, Nepal
Phone: 977 1 525313
Fax: 977 1 524509

International Board for Soil Research and Management (IBSRAM)
P.O. Box 9‑109
Bankhen, Bangkok 10900
Phone: 66 2 579 7590
Fax: 66 2 561 1230

Torim Mani
World Neighbors ‑ West Africa
B.P. 1315, Ouagadougou 01
Burkina Faso
Phone: 226 30 31 46
Fax: 226 31 25 14

Concern Worldwide
Overseas Support Unit
Camden St., Dublin 2
Phone: 353 1 4754162
Fax: 353 1 4754647

Mulch‑Based Agriculture Group (MBA)
Cornell University
622 Bradfield Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853 U.S.A.
Phone: 607 255 1712
Fax: 607 255 2644

Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA)
1600 Wilson Boulevard, Suite #500
Arlington, Virginia 22209 U.S.A.
Phone 703‑276‑1800
FAx 703 243‑1865

The Vetiver Network
15 Wirt Street NW
Leesburg, VA 22075 U.S.A.
Phone: 703 771‑1942
Fax: 703 771‑8260