Field Notes: Talking Data with Senegal’s Farmers

By Catherine Pomposi

On a hot weekend in mid-June, I traveled with members of the Senegalese National Meteorological Agency, known by the acronym ANACIM, to the village of Toucar in the Fatick region of Senegal. The meteorological team works in the region producing and delivering climate information for the farmers who live there. Fatick, like all of Senegal, is located in Africa’s Sahel, where climate variability and change, particularly of rainfall, can have major impacts on the local population.

Senegal’s climate has average temperatures of between 26 and 30ºC, clear skies from November to May, with a rainy season from June to October. The farmers rely almost entirely upon this natural source of water for their crops.

Engaging farmers with climate data

While this was the first workshop of its kind run in this region of the country, other projects utilizing climate information for food security have demonstrated great successes. This includes a project based in Kaffrine, Senegal, through the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security program. For the past few years, members of ANACIM have worked with the farmers in Kaffrine,  running workshops and gauging the interest in and benefits of, climate information. Farmers in Kaffrine have been truly pleased with the results of this partnership, and maintain that the information has allowed for them to grow greater crop yields and save property from weather related damages. Overall, they insist that their communities have been strengthened and have benefitted substantially because of climate information. It is encouraging to hear of these positive results and feedback, and hopefully similar outcomes will be demonstrated in Fatick.

One of the ways in which previous climate workshops have proven successful is to involve local extensionists, people who work to improve agriculture and social and educational benefits, who work as the liaisons between the Met Office and the local population. It is also critical to develop ways for the farmers to become personally invested and involved in the various steps of the project. Both of these components were on display during our visit to Fatick. The farmers are truly a key stakeholder group for the project, and information is given and shared among both the non-local scientific staff and the local community members.

Our second day of the workshop focused on the communication of the seasonal forecast itself. An explanation of how the forecast is made was given to provide context and understanding. For example, farmers are asked why they might visit the beach on a hot day. It is described that the ocean has a large “memory” in the context of the climate system and will remain cooler than the air since it “remembers” the previous seasons. For similar reasons, sea surface temperatures (SST) can affect the region’s rainfall patterns for the future; the seasonal forecast is computed using the most current SST anomalies and projecting the probability of above normal, normal, or below normal rainfall for the region. All of this is explained to the farmers and incorporated along with their traditional knowledge. The hope is that with the most information available to them, the local inhabitants can make planting decisions and manage their farms in a way that allows for them to minimize climatic risks, building resiliency within the community and improving livelihoods overall.

Science across continents

It was really inspiring to see science crossing continents, economic statuses, and languages, and even more exciting that climate information is being applied in such meaningful ways. In fact, the link between climate and society has always been one of the personal motivating factors in my research and a key reason why I applied for the Graduate Research and Innovation Fellowship through the US Agency for International Development, which sponsored this travel to Senegal to apply scientific expertise to development challenges. It was clear from driving around the Sahel and visiting the village that the farmers who live here have livelihoods that are intimately connected to the climate system. Thus, the work of climate scientists globally to try and understand variability in climate patterns and communicate this information to build resiliency for the local population is of obvious use and significance.

The farmers insisted that they would continue to monitor the climate data provided to them from ANACIM and said that they were looking forward to using the information to potentially increase their crop yields and protect their farms and property. One interesting point that stuck out to me is the deviation this year in both the scientific and traditional forecasts: while the scientific forecast projects a drier than normal year in 2014, the traditional forecast is for significant rains. It will be very interesting at the season’s end to see which conditions prevail, as well as to follow and quantify the benefits of this partnership in Fatick in the years to come.

This post was originally published on the High-End cLimate Impacts and eXtremes website.