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Effects of climate change causing mistrust between communities and local weather ‘experts’ in northern Kenya

Traditional weather forecaster, Mr Abdi Koropo, examines the intestines of a goat before making a weather prediction. PHOTO/ABJATA KHALIF


Fifty-eight years old Fatuma Ali has been a herder in her home village of Dhanyerey along Isiolo-Garissa border in Garissa County for more than four decades now.

But she is now distraught after losing a large number of her livestock following prolonged drought and inaccurate weather information she receives from local indigenous knowledge experts.

“Things have changed in term of weather information we used to receive from our elders’’ Fatuma says adding that the weather forecasts have been unreliable and a big blow to her once successful sheep rearing enterprise.

“I inherited my sheep rearing venture from my parents and had managed to increase the herd from 500 to 1,800 heads, but currently due to unpredictable weather pattern and prolonged drought, I have lost almost one thousand sheep’s,‘’ she says mournfully.

Fatuma is among thousands of livestock herders in Northern Kenya suffering losses running into millions of shillings after their herds are devastated by droughts due to unreliable information provided to them by indigenous weather ‘experts.’

‘’Pastoralism which is our main source of livelihood is intrinsically determined by weather and climatic conditions. Any wrong prediction and forecasting affect our food security and even ignite armed conflict between herders,’’ Fatuma added.

Local herding communities from Dhanyerey village, where Fatuma rear her few remaining sheep’s, mostly rely on traditional weather prediction compared to conventional forecast.

Indigenous weather forecasting in such areas done by groups old experienced elders who acquired their weather prediction skills and acumen from their fore fathers that had been transferred over generations.

Different communities have their own forecasters who check different weather indicators before arriving at predictions. They also compare notes with other forecasters for more accuracy.

However, experts argue that accuracy from traditional weather system is lacking due to effects of climate change and erratic weather patterns.

Mr Abdi Hassan, a climate change researcher with ASAL HOUSE, a consulting firm working on arid and semi-arid lands issues, says there is a simmering row between the communities and traditional weather forecasters due to wrong information they provide.

Fatuma Ali and other villagers watering their herds at Dhanyerey village, Garissa County. PHOTO/ABJATA KHALIF

‘’Currently the traditional weather forecasters are under pressure due to eroding trust from the herders and the communities in general,” Mr Abdi said.

Mr Abdi said this is due to massive losses herders are experiencing after receiving wrong weather information from the traditional ‘experts.’

Herders in Isiolo and Garissa Counties use traditional weather forecasting systems linked to the seasons and the calendar.

These include phenology (the study of plant and animal life cycles), animal behaviors, astrology, studying animal entrails and divining.

Elders detect changes in temperature and humidity from a tree locally known as the marer. They also observe the migratory patterns of different bird species, and trace the progress of stars in the sky or look for the presence of particular stars in constellations.

Local pastoralist communities believes this information can be used to forecast particular weather events such as long or short periods of rainfall, flash flooding, dry spells, or cold weather that could cause illness in people and livestock. The level of pasture in the region can also be foretold on this basis.

When the elders predict a dry spell, herders may move to other areas with more water and pasture, or even cross the border into Somalia, to return once the situation has improved.

They may sell their goats, sheep and cattle and buy camels, which are able to withstand drought. Others slaughter their older cattle and preserve the meat to use as food during the dry period.

A traditional weather forecaster, Mr Kusow Abdi, admitted the traditional weather forecasting system is not enjoying best of times as climate change impacts continue to affect their forecasting indicators.

‘’Traditional indicators like behaviors and activities of wild animals, insects and different species of plants continue to disappear due to effects of climate change, while remaining indicators offers different result or behaviors,’’ the traditional weatherman said.

Mr Kusow, an 87 years old traditional forecaster admitted that things started to change some years ago and most of their predictions went wrong or opposite.

Traditional weather forecaster, Mr Abdi Koropo, observing traditional rules of covering the intestine of a goat for 15 minutes before undertaking observations. PHOTO/ABJATA KHALIF

‘’Our traditional system was robust and result oriented but in the last ten years, we have not been getting it right due to what environment experts are saying is impacts of climate change,” Mr Kusow observed.

He said due inaccurate weather predictions most traditional forecasters are contemplating downing their tools in order to escape from the wrath of their disgruntled communities.

‘’We have no option but to step aside if we don’t want to ruin our reputations because of giving unreliable weather predictions to our people that are costing them heavily in terms of livestock losses,” Mr Bishar Abdi, another traditional weather forecaster lamented.

The trip to the far flung Dhanyerey village was supported by a generous grant from The African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

A hostile temperature, prolonged droughts and drying water wells has contributed to migration of birds and loss of important weather indicator plants.

‘’ We get weather prediction by observing all indicators and comparing them with certain actions. In the absence of a single or several indicators then our results will not be accurate,’’ Mr Kusow said.

This year northern Kenya region experienced flash floods caused by heavy rains that displaced hundreds of people causing a massive humanitarian crisis.

This humanitarian crisis was blamed on inaccurate weather information given by the traditional weather forecasters.

“Our traditional weather systems predicted normal rains and when flash floods occurred our people protested saying we gave them wrong information,’’ Mr Kusow disclosed.

However, during the same period, the Kenya Meteorological Department issued weather bulletins to communities living in arid and semi-arid regions indicating they would experience heavy rains. These bulletins were ignored due to the flawed predictions from the traditional weather forecasters.

“Local communities rely heavily on traditional weather predictions than the reliable conventional forecasts because it’s an old system they are used to,’’Mrs Amran Abdundi, an Executive Director with Northern Kenya based Frontier Indigenous Network observed.

Fatuma Ali and her children and grand-children relaxing at their Dhanyerey village home in Garissa County. PHOTO/ABJATA KHALIF

Mrs Abdundi said many local herders and villagers are now resorting to getting weather information from the County Meteorological Department offices and comparing it with what they got from their local forecasters.

“Locals still rely on traditional forecasters, but a new trend is emerging where herders are consulting local meteorological offices to get accurate weather information. This trend shows a paradigm shift and a new interest in reliable forecasting,” Mrs Amran asserted.

A climate scientist, Mr Ayub Shaka, clarified that traditional weather systems are culturally controlled while modern systems use science of probability and uncertainty.

“The future of indigenous weather forecasting is gloom as it’s driven by cultural belief that certain weather conditions must happen or it will happen,” Mr Shaka noted.

He said such a theory produces wrong information and the end result is loss of trust and creation of tension between the traditional forecasters and their service consumers.

However, some climate change defenders and advocates see failure to integrate indigenous knowledge in conventional weather predictions has hindered the ability of communities to properly handle risks associated with climatic shocks.

Mr Isa Hussein, a climate change activist based in Northern Kenya, advocates for mainstreaming of traditional weather system with the modern one so that communities can get accurate weather products and information.

‘’Increasing severity and frequency of droughts has rendered indigenous weather forecasting less reliable and its high time the service is mainstreamed in the conventional weather system,’’ Stated Mr Isa.

Dr. Richard Muita, an assistant director with Kenya Meteorological Department says that it is more difficult for indigenous traditional knowledge to come up with accurate forecasts as some of the indicators they use are affected by climate change.

“We are engaging indigenous traditional knowledge champions in remote and rural areas by learning from them and also availing weather products to large numbers of rural people seeking our services,’’ Dr Muita disclosed.

Other climate activists attribute poor transfer of indigenous weather prediction skills and knowledge to current unreliable forecasting made by the traditional systems.

“Poor transfer of skills and knowledge from older to new generation is affecting the quality and efficiency of the forecasts,’’ Mrs Habon Ali, a climate change researcher based in northern Kenya said.


This story was supported by a grant from The African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

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