In a small village 45 minutes from the city of Assiut, in southern Egypt, a group of farmers and their families gathered to watch a theatre performance that aimed to find the funny side of climate change.
The hour-long comedy, which has so far been performed in 50 villages in the Upper Egypt region, in the country’s south, tells the story of a farmer who refuses to pay for a new, more water-efficient agricultural canal.
When a snake bites him and he is thought to be dead, the farmer hears how much his family and neighbours hated him because he rejected modern farming methods. At the end of the show, he changes his perspective.
The play is part of a $7-million project funded by the World Food Programme (WFP) and managed by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture that aims to help farmers in the region cope better with climate change threats through modern technology, sustainable growing techniques and better understanding of climate issues.
Organisers say the project, which started in 2013 and is scheduled to end early next year, has boosted the production of some major crops by at least a third and drastically cut water consumption on the farms involved.
Joke on stage
It is one in a series of efforts the Egyptian government has made over the past decade to limit the negative impact of climate change on farmers across the country.
“Community mobilisation on the issue of climate change can encourage many people to embrace the ideas of the project. And theatre is one of the methods to mobilise the community,” said Ayam Abu el-Hagag, an actor in the traveling troupe and also an agricultural advisor.
He noted that each time the troupe delivers a joke on stage, the characters explain the information to make it accessible to all farmers, even those with little or no formal education.
“Comedy helps people understand things easier,” he added.
Climate change has been a major challenge for Egypt and according to the WFP, “southern Egypt is one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change within the region”.
Environmental groups regard Egypt as one of the countries most threatened by the negative effects of climate change, which include sea-level rise, water poverty, and deteriorating public health and ecosystems. The WFP forecasts that Upper Egypt could lose up to 30 per cent of its food production by 2050 as climate change brings more extreme weather and other threats.
Saber Osman, director of the climate change adaptation department at Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that losses could lead to a major crisis for Egypt’s farming sector.
Agriculture represents almost 15 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs about a third of the workforce, he said.
The idea behind the WFP project is to get farmers involved in the frontline fight against climate change and stamp out bad farming habits, said the project’s director, Othman el-Sheikh.
Modern meets traditional
That includes encouraging farmers to plant crop varieties that require less water and to follow new irrigation methods to reduce water consumption.
Farmers also learn how to combine traditional farming techniques with more modern technology, such as solar-powered irrigation pumps and an app that alerts farmers to incoming weather events.
One main focus for the project is to help farmers work together, to cut the cost of seeds by buying them in bulk and planting them across several neighbouring farms, el-Sheikh explained.
“Fragmented agricultural holdings are common throughout Egypt in general and in Upper Egypt in particular,” he said.
When they work independently, many farmers cannot afford to access high-quality resources, which lowers their productivity and leads to about 10 per cent of land lying fallow, he added.
The initiative helps farmers organise into groups of at least 70, who agree to pool their resources.
Every planting season, the Society Development Association in Sahel Selim, which is working with the WFP on the project, buys enough seed for all 70 farmers and divides the seeds equally among them.