BAMAKO, Mali (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Talking with his neighbours under a neem tree, Madou Kone relates how he is late planting his sorghum crop this year – even though the usual time to plant is now.
“This is the right time to start farming, but I haven’t sown any crop yet, as I had to finish clearing my farm. I am a bit late,” said the 56-year-old Kone, a resident of the village of Heremakono, in the country’s south.
Malian farmers expect to begin sowing in late June or early July, at the beginning of the rainy season, which typically lasts until October. But this year the rains came at the beginning of May, leaving farmers scrambling to get ready, and confused about when the best time would be to start growing their crops.
“Every rainy season has (its) particular patterns,” Kone added by way of explanation.
Since a series of droughts in the 1980s, the rainy season in Mali has become increasingly unpredictable, often starting a good month later than it used to. In 2013 the rains did not start until July. So it was a great surprise that this year it started raining in May – the once-traditional period for rains – and has barely stopped since.
“First, I thought rains would come in June or July this year. Thank God, it has been raining since early May, as if we are going back to the normal rhythm of seasons,” Kone said.
Kone believes the instability of the beginning of the rainy season is linked to natural factors beyond people’s control. Daouda Diarra, a climate specialist at the Malian meteorological service, agrees.
“This trend is linked to climate change. The result is that farmers don’t know by themselves when the rainy season starts and when it ends,” Diarra said. That makes growing a crop an increasingly challenge – and threatens the region’s food security.
The problem goes beyond Mali’s frontiers, and West African countries now are attempting to tackle it through regional cooperation.
In late April, a regional forum of agro-meteorological services met in Bamako, the Malian capital, to forecast rains for 2014 and formulate advice for farmers.
The specialists forecast the early rains that have arrived in the Sahel region and predicted that this year’s overall rainfall may be less than last year’s for the period from June to September.
A press release issued by the forum said that rainfall was expected to be lower than normal in the majority of Guinea Conakry, Senegal, Gambia and some parts of Mali and Mauritania.
Abdou Ali, a climate specialist at the Sahel region’s agro-meteorological service, AGRHYMET, warned of disturbances in the distribution of rainfall during the rainy season, particularly at the beginning and end, and of periods of drought.
The forum said that the rains may cease at the now-normal time in October in the entire West African region, though some areas may experience an earlier end to the season. Long sequences of drought may be observed in the northern part of Senegal and Nigeria, in the agrarian parts of Mali, eastern Burkina Faso and all the agrarian areas of Niger, Mauritania and Chad.
In Heremakono, farmers trying to figure out the rains now face the problem of deciding the right variety of seed to plant.
“I’m not going to grow a short-cycle crop, as the end of the rainy season may (still) be four months away,” said Abdoulaye Keita, 59, an inhabitant of Heremakono.
Keita acknowledged the possibility that the rains could end early and that there is a chance of drought, but he is convinced that the country is in for a season of abundant rain.
“In our Mandingo culture, this will be a good year, full of rains, because last year it didn’t rain enough. The remaining rains are coming; this is why it is raining early,” said Keita.
As part of its work, the Bamako meteorological forum has made suggestions for farmers on how to adapt their activities to the changing precipitation cycles.
In areas where the rains have come early, such as Heremakono, the experts said farmers should pay attention to flood risks this year, and those who invest in staple crops adapted to non-flooded areas must avoid plots with standing water in order to prevent lower yields.
Some Malian farmers have decided to use a traditional agricultural technique of sowing seed without first ploughing the soil. According to Kone, the method takes advantage of the early rains and can encouraging crops to grow quickly.
“It is an ancient technique people use prior to the rains’ arrival. Crops grow faster than grass; and you need only little effort to weed,” Kone said.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.