In the darkness after pre-dawn prayer a village elder would squint at the sky overhead, tilting his head back until his cap fell off, looking for a cluster of bright stars that signalled the middle of the rainy season.
Now many traditional methods are becoming increasingly unreliable predictors of the weather due to climate variability, and African farmers already facing fluctuations need scientific data to help them adapt, farmers and climate experts say.
"You plant your seeds and then the rain doesn't come. So next year you change your approach and you plant later, but the rain comes earlier," said Paul Thiao, a farmer and regional coordinator for the Senegalese Federation of NGOs (FONGS).
"Farmers have become gamblers," he said. "The system has been disturbed and now they must take a gamble on when the rain will come. But they are gambling with their livelihoods."
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Canadian organisation supporting scientific research in developing countries, is working with FONGS and other organisations to diffuse scientific and local knowledge to help Senegalese farmers adapt.
Traditional knowledge essential
Farmers need scientific data on soil fertility levels and adaptive seed varieties in order to assure a good harvest, but traditional cultivation methods and local perspectives on climate change are also vital to maintaining crop yields, said Ndiankou Seye, head of planning and research at the government's regional council of Thiès, 70km from the capital Dakar, told IRIN.
"There are things the climatologists cannot tell you and there are scientific facts that are incomprehensible to the farmer," Seye said.
Madeleine Diouf Sarr, who leads Senegal’s climate change committee at the Ministry of Environment, agreed that efforts to adapt to changing weather patterns must combine traditional and scientific knowledge.
"Even though the [weather] shifts, the plants do not lie. When plants feel a certain amount of humidity they will bloom. So the indigenous approach is as valuable as the science involved," she told IRIN.
Feeling the heat
In Senegal, where more than three-quarters of the population live off the land, many relying on rain-fed crops, farmers are already feeling the sting of unpredictable weather.
Photo: Fid Thompson/IRIN
|Elders in the village of Fandène say they find it increasingly difficult to predict the weather through traditional methods because of climate change|
People in the village of Fandène, near Thiès, said the changes include warmer winters, harsher winds, erratic rains and smaller harvests.
Production levels are lower compared to 20 years ago, Therese Mbaye, a local council member, told IRIN. "There is not enough water for the harvest and the marshes have dried up. People have left Fandène for Dakar."
The UN's Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that in some African countries rain-fed agriculture will be reduced by half in just over a decade and climate change will result in less cultivatable land, shorter seasons and lower yields.
Possible consequences, according to the panel of experts, include sharper food scarcity, malnutrition, disease and instability.
For Assize Touré, technical director at the Ecological Monitoring Centre in Dakar, the current changes are worrying enough. "There is not enough emphasis on helping vulnerable communities to adapt to the changes they are already experiencing. It is time to develop strategies."
Meteorological data gap
For successful adaptation, vulnerable populations need accurate data on meteorological patterns, weather forecasts and risk assessment, according to the 2008 UN Human Development Report. But despite their precarious situation, Senegalese farmers have little access to such information, Touré said.
Africa has the world's lowest density of meteorological stations with only one-eighth of the minimum level recommended by the World Meteorological Organisation.
The Environment Ministry's Sarr said predicting rainfall is complex. "You need to have a dense coverage of meteorological observatories in order to predict the weather with precision for specific areas. That is the difficulty in West Africa."
While more detailed meteorological information can result in higher production through strategic planting, Sarr cautioned against leaving everything to science. "Scientific forecasting is limited because you cannot predict very far in advance, which leaves things uncertain right up to the beginning of the [planting] season."
Fatima Denton, who leads the IDRC's Climate Change Adaptation in Africa project, said policymakers must act. "Adaptation is done at the local level but the results of local actions need to find a way of percolating up to decision-makers so they can act on climate change."
Denton hopes to see cooperation at the regional level not only on addressing known impacts but also on anticipating potential problems.
"It's all about anticipation. Climate variability is just the tip of the iceberg, but we can prepare ourselves in advance," she said. Denton said while awareness is increasing decision-makers in Africa lack a sense of urgency.
"We still have a long way to go to internalise the huge challenge that climate change poses to Africa."