Mixing meteorology with traditions to improve climate forecasts for pastoralists

Tanzanian meteorologists and traditional weather forecasters in pastoralist communities are working together to develop a unified system of climate information.

Tobias Mitchell's picture
Insight by 
Tobias Mitchell
19 March 2014
Early start: A cow being milked at first light in the village of Kimokouwa (credit: Toby Mitchell)

Early start: A cow being milked at first light in the village of Kimokouwa (Copyright Toby Mitchell)

Travelling through northern Tanzania in early March I was struck by the intense variations in both scenery and climate that occurred over a relatively small geographical area. The drylands, as these areas are known, are characterized by uncertainty, and pose a unique set of challenges for those who inhabit them.

Pastoralists are well placed to meet and even thrive in these conditions. To do so they require access to pasture, often cross border and far away. Access to reliable and timely information on where and when the rains will fall, and for how long they will last, is thus critical in helping them make the right decisions on where to move.

In this context the Tanzanian Meteorological Agency, in associate with Hakikazi Catalyst and the International Institute for Environment and Development, have started a pilot project that aim to improve people’s access to climate information in the districts of Longido, Monduli and Ngorongoro.

Between 7-10 March, we travelled to several villages across the districts and held meetings with local stakeholders and district level officials.

During these meetings, TMA staff Isaac Yonah and Faustine Tilya asked the assembled village representatives to record salient weather data over a two week period. The TMA also provided its own predictions for rainfall over the same period. Two weeks later they would meet again to compare the scientific and traditional approaches to weather forecasting, with the aim of producing a unified forecast.

During the initial part of the meeting, there was often a distinct lack of energy in the room, with many participants appearing somewhat disinterested. Everything changed in the second half, when village representatives were asked about their own forecasting.

Engaging stakeholders: A meeting with village representatives (credit: Toby Mitchell).

The room came to life. Voices clamoured to be heard as participants were keen to share their input. The indicators they mentioned included such factors as the strength and direction of the wind, the mating habits of their livestock, and the cycles of the moon.

According to Johanes Msuya, a researcher for Hakikazi Catalyst, "successfully combining these traditional forecasts with the forecasts made by the TMA presents a valuable opportunity to integrate pastoralists into the weather forecasting apparatus."

If this is achieved, the ultimate goal of this ongoing project, to produce a unified forecast for each district incorporating a range of voices, will have a far greater uptake, providing pastoralists with the information they need to thrive.

An increased capacity for weather forecasting is especially vital in the context of climate change.

A son and his father: Oiyare Quhuru and Quhru Kaiyongo in Kimokouwa village (credit: Toby Mitchell).

Quhru Kaiyongo, 80, a pastoralist elder in the living in the village of Kimokouwa, had his own distinct understanding of what climate changes means.

"Conditions were different in the past," he said. "We were able to prosper from our livestock. Now things are different. We have to travel much greater distances to access the pasture, making it more difficult for us to grow our herds."

Greater distance can mean greater risk, and the need for accurate information upon which to base these movements is becoming increasingly vital.

My time spent travelling with colleagues from Hakikazi Catalyst and the TMA brought home to me the importance of actively engaging with stakeholder groups in a manner which both excites and includes them.

Accurate climate information and weather forecasting provide a major opportunity to help safeguard pastoral livelihoods. Though still in its infancy, initiatives to produce district level unified forecasts have shown great promise, and represent a small step toward achieving this goal.

Tobias Mitchell is a consultant working with IIED’s climate change group ([email protected]). The project is funded by UK aid from the UK Government, however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK Government