HOW THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS CHANGING LIVES IN RURAL AREAS

Reflections about my grandmother’s life, farming and climate change

Photo: Henri Kugler

Photo: Henri Kugler

Part I | My family story

All my grandma Hanna’s life has been interwoven with her love to the soil and its miraculous gift to produce crops. Born in 1932 in a small village in the north of Ukraine, she was one of ten children in a large rural family. Because of the lack of sound public healthcare support at that time, and years that brought the Holodomor and the World War II, only half of her siblings reached the mature age. Rural families rely on the ability of the soil to generate crops, vegetables, and fruits, as well as on the products of the animal husbandry – in other words, soil is the source of life for these people. Even during such human-caused disasters as the Holodomor (in 1932-1933) and the World War II (the military actions in the area where grandma Hanna used to live took place in 1941-1943), a chance to be closer to the ground was often a lifesaving one, especially, for many rural families. Sometimes, like in 1946 due to natural disasters such as drought or hail, there was a crop failure which led to famine during the following year. Grandma Hanna survived all these challenging times and in 1951 moved to Kyiv to assist in its reconstruction after WWII and support the Soviet post-war urbanisation. It was in Kyiv that she met my grandpa and gave birth to her four daughters.

Grandma Hanna [Source: author’s family archive]

Grandma Hanna [Source: author’s family archive]

However, once the children became independent, in 1991, my grandma purchased a small house with a land plot in the countryside where she used to live from March until October every year doing what she loved the most: growing all sorts of vegetables, fruits, and berries that she could fit in on her property. Having that little farm supported our big family in the shock post-Soviet years, as the entire economy of Ukraine slipped into its largest crisis. My summer vacation always included a month of helping, together with my cousins, our grandma in her countryside house. We spent hours watering the plants in the periods of drought, catching the Colorado potato beetles (our biggest enemy at the time of lack of insecticides) and other creepy parasites, chasing neighbours’ chickens from our yard, and collecting (and eating) the crops of berries, fruits and vegetables. When my grandma Hanna turned 80, she moved back to the entire-year life in the city to have a comfortable ageing with her family. 

Part II | On crops and climate change

Unfortunately, not all people have such flexibility to choose where and how to live. According to the World Bank, in 2019, about 45% of the global population lived in rural areas. This figure significantly differs from country to country: apart from several unique cases such as Hong Kong and Kuwait that have no rural population at all, it varies from 2% in Belgium to 87% in Burundi and Papua New Guinea. Despite the rapid urbanisation rates, the general trend remains – the higher shares of rural population live in the developing countries. Like my grandma Hanna, in the most critical situations these rural families vitally depend on farming and animal husbandry that in their turn are utterly dependent on climate conditions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a world known organisation researching on climate, states that the agriculture sector generates 23% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are a key factor in human induced climate change. Since the end of the pre-industrial period, when the anthropogenic impact on planet climate was relatively low, both the mean land surface air temperature and the global mean surface temperature (that includes ocean data as well) have drastically increased as a result of the human activity heavily relying on use of fossil fuels:

Source: IPCC, 2020

Source: IPCC, 2020

Thus, a vicious circle is created: the agriculture sector generates GHGs that cause the global climate change which in its turn impacts the agriculture sector and directly those families relying on farming and animal husbandry, as well as big companies, that feed the urban population. As a result of climate change, fewer yields could be produced due to increased frequency and power of natural disasters, deterioration in water quality and availability, appearance of new and traditionally unusual for different areas parasites, weeds, and diseases, disappearance of bees and other insects that contribute with pollination ‘services’. At the same time, for some countries the climate change impacts might also deliver positive results such as increased yields of some warmth-loving plant cultures. 

These changes are already happening. Hard to believe? Everyone knows of the sparkling wine champagne that has historically been produced in France, in the Champagne region. Not until very recently people did not know about the existence of the British sparkling wine, which in recent years has become more popular and even received attention from the producers of the original champagne. It has become possible to grow vines and produce good wine in England due to longer and milder summer, something that was even hard to imagine decades ago. Another personal experience: during my childhood, it was well known that peaches and apricots did not grow in the north of Ukraine. Well, now my family grows both not far away from Kyiv:

Photos: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photos: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Part III | What we can do to adapt to climate change

When it comes to an overall impact of climate on agriculture on the global level, these stories about the UK and Ukraine, both of which are located in the temperate climate zone of the Northern hemisphere, are rather an exclusion than a rule of thumb. For most of the countries, especially in the tropics, climate change looks less optimistic for the sector of agriculture and millions of people depending on it.

This complex problem cannot have a simple solution. Nevertheless, complex solutions exist and they require adaptation to the existing climate change by all participants involved in this process:

  • Governments could develop and implement the adaptation strategies and plans of actions, tailoring them to reflect circumstances, needs, challenges and opportunities of the countries and separate regions. 
  • Municipal authorities know best the local problems and how to introduce appropriate approaches on climate change adaptation at the local level.
  • Non-governmental organisations could spread the information and raise public awareness on options of climate adaptation. 
  • Development organisations may support governments, and also implement pilot projects with local communities to show how adaptation can be done reflecting local circumstances. 
  • Financial institutions are the leaders in knowledge about risks and their management. They could develop financial instruments to protect communities from climate-related risks and introduce adaptation measures by households, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and large businesses. 
  • What about the families that depend the most on the crops? Families can contribute to climate adaptation too, starting with simple actions such as collecting rainwater to use for watering the crops, looking into growing non-traditional types of plants that react better to new weather conditions, diversifying the grown cultures, planting trees to enable natural soil protection from erosion, using organic fertilisers, insecticides, and pesticides, changing the dates of sowing and harvesting, and adopting irrigation systems.

Looking closer into climate adaptation strategies, we can notice that this is something that people have been doing for centuries: selecting the best species and varieties to grow in specific weather conditions and trying new ones to see whether they deliver better yields. Now, the climate changes quicker than ever and this is another side of the problem – people and ecosystems struggle to adapt to the changes as fast as they happen. The good news is that with more information we know better what could be done, and with modern technologies we can share the solutions quicker than ever before.

By the way, I think the photos below prove that I have discovered a couple of secrets of my cousin:

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

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Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya

Photo: Anna Voitsehovskaya


Nataliya Vasylyeva
Professional consultant with over 10 years of experience in policy development and implementation (environmental and climate change policies, waste management) and 6 years in international environmental project management and coordination

The project Farming for the future: ecological agriculture and food security in the 21st century is a cross-border initiative aiming to document the trends, challenges and opportunities in ecological farming across the world. This project was financed by the UK Chevening Scholarship Programme.