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As insects disappear, so do Kenya's traditional forecasts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 11 Oct 2013 07:00 GMT
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Safari ants cross a path in western Kenya. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Caleb Kemboi
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UASIN GISHU, Kenya (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For decades, indigenous farmers living in Kenya’s Rift Valley have predicted the weather by observing the behaviour of insects.

Such traditional knowledge guided their decisions about when to prepare land for planting, as well as what kinds of crops to sow.

“When safari ants cross the road carrying all types of food in one line to (their) hole, this foretells the rainy season ... and we start tilling our land ready for planting,” said Philip Barno, an elder of the Kalenjin community. “During dry spells ants (come) into houses searching for food and humidity.”

But climate change and the increasingly variable weather patterns in the Rift Valley region have led to a decline in the ants, along with other insects, making it difficult for farmers to predict the weather for the coming season.

“Insects respond to an optimum temperature in order to grow, but due to changes in temperatures in the recent past, the numbers of insects have declined,” said Raphael Ochieng, an entomologist at the University of Eldoret.

The effect is not only seen in weather forecasting. Some insects play an important role in pollinating crops, and farmers’ yields have dropped along with insect numbers.

Farmers also observe formations of Hadeda ibis birds in the evening sky to predict rain, while some noises made by frogs and toads are taken to indicate fair weather the next day. When the medicinal baobab tree sheds its leaves, the farmers say, dry spells are around the corner.

Different Kenyan communities share similar traditional methods of observing creatures to forecast the weather. Onesmus Opande, the indigenous weatherman of the Luhya community in western Kenya, believes the behaviour of insects can foretell good and bad things that will befall the community.

“When termites come out, it (is­) a sign of good fortune to the community as far as agriculture is concerned, (and) we start tilling land for the planting season. But when we experience the gathering of locusts, it (is an) indication of hunger and famine,” Opande said.

Then, “we prepare for tough times ahead by preserving food and planting drought-resistant crops like cassava, sorghum and millet,” he said.

ROLE OF DEFORESTATION, PESTICIDES

Human activities, as well as temperature changes, are contributing to changes in insect populations, including the introduction of new pesticides and deforestation to provide land for food production and to shelter a growing population.

Farmers in Kenya increasingly have suffered extreme floods during the rainy season which have destroyed crops, while high temperatures during dry spells can wilt the plants.

“Land degradation, the population increase, poor land tillage ... has led to a change of weather patterns,” Barno said.

 But most meteorologists dismiss traditional approaches to forecasting the weather as meaningless and unreliable.

“Farmers who depend on the behaviour of nature entirely to guide them to prepare their land for planting season are just good observers,” said Ayub Shaka Mwadali of the Public Weather and Media Services, which runs the country’s meteorological department. Referring to traditional forecasting knowledge, he added, “It can’t be proven scientifically.”

According to Shaka, insects respond to changes in humidity and temperature with a variety of behaviours which cannot be relied on to forecast the weather.

However, entomologist Ochieng argues that indigenous methods are a time-honoured phenomenon that should not be ignored by scientists. Instead, he believes, meteorologists and traditional weathermen should collaborate to provide farmers with reliable forecasts.

For their part, farmers know they need guidance but are unhappy with what they receive from the experts.

“We now depend entirely on the meteorological department through radio programmes but it’s not reliable at all. Sometimes when they indicate that it will rain it won’t,” Opande complained.

“There’s a lot of information on climate change but farmers are not using it,” Barno said. “The meteorological department are not packaging their information in a way farmers can understand.”

GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT

But the meteorological department says it uses a variety of means to communicate its messages.

 “We reach out to the public through ceremonies, public meetings and person to person, (using) established methods of communication in communities where many cannot read or write,” Shaka said.

With the utility of the old ways fading, farmers are uncertain where to turn next, but some see more careful communication of information as a way forward.

“Scientists should break down the information for us to understand since we now depend on the radio (and) television,” Barno said.

Others stressed the need for longer-term solutions to the challenges of climate change.

“The relevant authorities should come up with policies which could help to control the deforestation and plant more trees in order to increase the forest cover,” Ochieng said. “That’s the only way to safeguard the ecosystem.”

For Vincent Sudoi, dean of environmental studies at the University of Eldoret, the problem remains clear-cut.

 “I think farmers should change the way they are getting information on climate change by abandoning the indigenous way, because it’s no longer reliable,” he said. “The scientific way is the way to go.”

Caleb Kemboi is an environmental and climate change reporter based in Eldoret, in Kenya’s Rift Valley.He can be reached at ckemboi08@gmail.com.

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