p>BAMAKO, Mali (AlertNet) Â? Around mud-brick houses in the Malian village of Tamala, farmers hurry to weed their plots of land, trying to make the most of a day that has been forecast as dry and sunny.
"I planned to weed my farm today when I heard on the radio it wouldn't rain much," says Seydou Samake, who lives in the village about 87 kilometres from Mali's capital. "A sunny day can suddenly become a rainy one, which would be less favourable for weeding."
Daily weather bulletins on public radio and television Â? with data gathered from the farmers themselves - are helping Malian farmers to plan their activities and improve their crop yields.
The service is proving vital in a country where climate change is causing weather patterns to shift and rainfall to diminish.
Manure spreading, pesticide applications, harvesting and crop storage can now be timed according to accurate weather forecasts.
Traditionally, Mali's rainy season begins in June and runs until October but year by year the rains are starting later and many areas are facing drought, farmers and climate experts say.
To assist farmers, Mali's meteorological service provides weather bulletins through its National Agro-Meteorological Assistance Programme, which also carries advice for farmers from other farmers and from experts.
"Although weather forecasts broadcast by national radio and television are accessible to many people, trained farmers also advise their fellows," a key part of the effort's success, said Daouda Zan Diarra, who works at the programme.
FARMERS PROVIDE DATA
Sali Samake, also of Tamala, is one of some 1,700 farmers who have been trained by the Malian government in weather observation, how to use a rain gauge and on the links between meteorology and agriculture.
Samake measures rainfall levels and telephones the data to the meteorological service. The information is analysed by a multi-disciplinary group including scientists, journalists and farmers, and turned into advice to be broadcast to Mali's farmers.
At the start of the rainy season, the Agro-Meteorological Assistance Programme provides seasonal forecasts to help farmers decide what crops to plant and where.
"The seasonal forecast allows farmers to choose species and fields adapted to the rainfall level, even if the rainy season starts late," said Samake. "For instance, cereals like millet, sorghum and maize are recommended for low areas if rainfall is bad and in the highlands if (rainfall) is high," she added.
The assistance programme covers five regions of Mali where there is enough rainfall for agriculture (much of the country is desert). Since it began in the late 1990s, 50 percent of farmers who followed the advice more than doubled their sorghum yield to 1,325 kg per hectare from 500kg per hectare, according to a report by the Malian government.
The service is particularly important when the rainy season arrives late or rains fall short.
"Since the severe droughts of the late 70s, Mali has faced an ongoing rain shortage," said Sidi Konate, a professor at the University of Bamako.
"No part of the country receives 1200 millimetres of rain a year any more and rainfall has decreased by 20 percent," he added, attributing the changes to global warming.
Samake said meteorological advice proved vital to farmers this year.
"The rainy season was a month late, but the meteorological service counselled us to sow 120-day-cycle seed varieties between June 11 and 30 if the total rainfall reached 20 millimetres or more," she said. That helped produce a harvest despite the problems.
The meteorological service also offers farmers a specialized agricultural calendar based on an analysis of their local land's climate, soil and agrarian features.
"With that calendar, farmers become independent when it comes to deciding when to plant their seeds. With their rain gauge they can determine what they must do," Diarra said.
SOME VILLAGES TOO REMOTE
Since the service relies on accurate data, the government has issued bicycles to farmers in rural areas where there are no telephones so they can take their data to meteorological offices. Farmers have also received rain gauges and transmission tools like walkie-talkies.
Rural meteorological offices that collect and distribute information and advice to farmers have been outfitted with computers and vehicles.
Despite its successes, however, the assistance programme continues to face an uphill battle to get updated information from remote villages to urban centres. Some areas also are out of the reach of local media broadcasts or the broadcast is not translated into enough languages for all farmers to understand.
The Malian government is also engaged in other efforts to deal with climate change and reduced rainfall.
Since 2005, the government has been operating a cloud seeding programme - a form of weather modification that aims to induce precipitation by dispersing substances in the air. This programme is now being strengthened with the purchase of two new airplanes.
Soumaila T. Diarra is a freelance journalist based in Bamako with an interest in environmental issues.