Christian Aid helps Kenyan farmers adapt to climate change

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On the southern slopes of Mount Kenya, a Christian charity is helping small farmers adapt to climate change through the use of both traditional and modern forms of weather forecasting.

In the Anglican diocese of Mbeere, U.K.-based Christian Aid and the Humanitarian Futures Project of King's College (London) are funding the pilot project.

"We would like farmers to interact more with climate scientists and understand where climate science comes from, but not forgetting there have been mechanisms among the farmers to predict and forecast weather situations through traditional methods," said Eston Njuki, an East Africa program officer at Christian Aid.

The project, known as Sustainable Agricultural Livelihoods Innovation (SALI), seeks to improve crop and livestock production for the farmers, according to Njuki. It is being implemented on the ground by Christian Community Services of Mt. Kenya East, a development agency serving five Anglican dioceses, and Trade Craft East Africa, a non-governmental organization.

Some farmers in Mbeere follow seasonal forecasts from radio and television, according to the official, but many shun the forecasts delivered by the Meteorological Department, doubting their validity since there is no weather station nearby.

They prefer to predict the weather through such indigenous practices as observing the appearance of low flying dragonflies, large numbers of low-swooping swallows or the flowering of acacia trees.

"This traditional knowledge on forecasting has some scientific basis in it. That is why we are bringing the two to interact," noted Njuki who works directly on the project.

In an interview with ENInews in Nairobi he explained that when science based forecasting is compared against the direction of winds and how humid they are, for instance, the flowering of certain types of trees or the migration of bees, the farmers can make better decisions when to plant and what crops to grow.

"Getting [forecasts] right leads to good harvests and families having plenty to eat and sell. Getting them wrong can lead to hunger, poverty and suffering. This is the reality for millions of people across Africa," said Richard Ewbank, Climate Adviser at Christian Aid.

When the project started a year ago, farmers were experiencing the consequences of climate change -- higher temperatures, intense rainfall, stronger winds and longer dry seasons. The effects were disrupting weather patterns, according to Njuki, making it difficult for farmers to predict the seasons.

"One of the methods has been to deliver an area-specific climate information and weather forecast" using SMS texts, he explained.

In the diocese, farmer Nelson Githaiga is happy with the innovation. He recalled that when the first forecast said the rains would be good, he got a better harvest after planting on time and choosing drought-resistant crops.

"It came as an SMS and we replied saying it works since the rains came the same day. Now, we are joyful since we have a forecast that represents our area. We were usually put together with a tea-growing area in the national forecast, while ours is a semi-arid area," said Githaiga.

For Lucy Muriuki, it is liberating to know when to plant or harvest. She is among the farmers who have received training on how to interpret data from the Meteorological Department and recommendations on how best to grow maize, cow peas, mung beans and sorghum, the main crops here.

"I can now decide on the right kind of crop, since I can predict when the rains are coming. At first we would 'guess' using the traditional forecasting methods. I am happy that this is going to help farmers in our area," Muriuki said.

The project will continue through 2012 and 2013, bringing the total number of people affected to 12,000.