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KENYA: Successful Weather Prediction Uses Old and New

Isaiah Esipisu

NAIROBI, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - In the wake of ever-changing climatic conditions, a study in western Kenya has discovered that combining traditional methods of weather prediction with meteorological forecasting is the best way of obtaining more accurate forecast data.

Dr. Gilbert Ouma with a cross section of a Shibelenge tree traditionally used in rainfall prediction. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Dr. Gilbert Ouma with a cross section of a Shibelenge tree traditionally used in rainfall prediction. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

This was one of the findings of a report submitted to the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Apr. 23 after two years of research.

The project, known as ‘Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Climate Risk Management to Support Community Based Adaptation’ is led by the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre, with support from the IDRC and the Department for International Development’s Climate Change Adaptation in Africa program.

The study involves research scientists from the Kenya Meteorology Department, the University of Nairobi, the Maseno University and traditional weather forecasters.

The research noted that while modern science provides reasonably accurate seasonal climate forecasts, many local communities still rely on indigenous knowledge to guide their planting, harvesting and other agricultural activities, to minimise climate risk.

“However, communities are still vulnerable, despite the availability of both indigenous knowledge and scientific forecasts. To address this, the project is investigating the integration of the two domains of knowledge – the best from both worlds,” said Dr Gilbert Ouma, the project’s manager.

According to the study, climate change will seriously affect indigenous knowledge indicators – a scenario that is already happening. “Some important plant species used by the traditional forecasters are already disappearing due to unfavourable climatic conditions,” said Ouma, also a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Meteorology.

For two years, scientific forecasters from the Kenya Meteorological Department have done their forecasting, in parallel with the traditional rain foretellers.

Reports from both sides are brought together for comparison, before being combined and released as a single weather report. It is then translated to Kinyore, the area’s local language, before it is disseminated through community radio, chief’s meetings, and word of mouth.

Previously the forecasts generated by meteorologists were too complex and often difficult for farmers to use. And the forecasts generated by traditional forecasters, although widely used, had not always been accurate as they had not been able to account for the variability of weather patterns due to climate change.

However, the new mix has gone down well with Lameck Okubo, a horticultural farmer in Ebuhando, a small village near Maseno hills. “The broadcast information which comes after every news bulletin is of great help. We have crops like tomatoes which we must observe the weather before planting. Such crops have always failed whenever there is plenty of rain, unlike kales which flourish with rains,” said Okubo.

His sentiments were echoed by Flora Jumba, a business woman selling fruits at the Luanda market. “The forecast helps us know what to expect on the market in the near future. This is extremely important because some fruits and vegetables need adequate preparations in terms of storage,” she said.

But whose predications are more accurate? “Surprisingly, results from both sides have always been nearly the same,” said Ouma.

“The only difference is that scientific forecasting covers a wider area, and can predict things like cyclones, el-nino among others. The traditional foretellers only get accurate predictions for a particular focus area, which could consist of about 10 villages,” he said.

The research project was conducted in collaboration with the Nganyi community in western Kenya, an area that is known to have a well-established traditional system for weather prediction.

“The biggest barrier is that the traditional rainmakers are not willing to disclose exactly what they observe in nature, because they consider it to be a secret of their livelihood. But with the building of trust (between scientists and rainmakers), they have started opening up,” said Ouma.

According to Ouma, the Nganyi community has pointed out a particular tree locally known as ‘Shibelenge’ as the most important indicator for long-term rain prediction. “They have not revealed exactly what they observe on the tree. But we have taken specimens from one of the trees believed to be over 200 years old for a scientific analysis,” he said.

An interview with a ‘rainmaker’ from western Kenya also revealed how the behaviour of animals acted as indicators.

According to Ndululu Otenyo, renowned rainmaker from Ikhaba village in Western Kenya, some animals like antelopes never mate when there is no rain. “If there was a drought, then suddenly you see antelopes mating, then you must expect heavy rains within less than a week. At the same time if you see bees migrating from north to the southern direction, then you should start preparing for drought,” said Otenyo.

For a better understanding of the indigenous meteorology knowledge, researchers have requested an extension of the project so that they can scientifically analyse some of the indicators already disclosed by traditional forecasters.

“There is a plan of expanding the scope for linking traditional and scientific knowledge in all other parts of the country, then to other countries within the region,” said Ouma.

Researchers are also in the process of developing a curriculum on traditional methods of weather prediction, which will be taught as a course at the Great Lakes University of Kisumu.

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