Strategies used by indigenous rural people to help predict disasters and mitigate the effects of climate change could be deployed to design large-scale global adaptation efforts, the authors of a study of rural communities in Ghana’s Offin River Basin have said.
The basin — a semi-humid tropical region populated mainly by subsistence farmers — has been hit hard by crop failures since 2000 due to warming air temperatures, increasing sunshine intensity and a change in seasonal rainfall patterns, according to the study titled, “Using traditional knowledge to cope with climate change in Ghana”.
“There’s much we can learn from indigenous, traditional and community-based approaches to natural disaster preparedness,” said scientist Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, lead author of the paper.
“Indigenous people have been confronted with changing environments for millennia and have developed a wide array of coping strategies — their traditional knowledge and practices provide an important basis for facing the even greater challenges of climate change.”
For example, in December 2004, a magnitude 9.15 quake off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province triggered a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed about 226,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and nine other countries.
Just before the tsunami struck, the Moken and Urok Lawai people of Thailand, the Ong of India’s Andaman Islands and the Simeulue community of Indonesia took the precaution of moving inland after they saw the waves retreat from the ocean shoreline. Entire villages were destroyed, but inhabitants escaped safely – almost 80,000 Simeulue fled and fewer than seven died, the U.N. reported.
The islanders were not alerted by warnings from loudspeakers, mobile phones or radio transmission, but recognized the danger signs, due to stories about their devastating impact passed down through generations after a tsunami in 1907.
They referred to it as the telling of smong — a local term used to describe earthquake tremors, withdrawal of the sea beyond its usual low tide mark and returning waters that rush inland.
Between 1961 and 2006, there was a reduction of mean annual rainfall of just over 22 percent and a gradual rise in average maximum temperatures of 1.3 degrees Celsius – an increase of 4.3 percent in Ghana’s Offin River Basin, research shows.
“Indigenous people may not understand the concept of global warming or climate change, but they see and feel the effects of seasonal changes in rainfall patterns,” Gyampoh said, adding that their observations are supported by scientific findings.
Temperatures in Ghana rose about 1 degree Celsius in the last 40 years of the 20thcentury, while rainfall and runoff decreased by approximately 20 and 30 percent, the study said, citing Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency.
About 90 percent of the population over age 40 in 20 rural communities living in the area surveyed by scientists depend on streams, rivers and rainfall collection for their water needs, it said.
Reduced rainfall and the effects of deforestation and forest degradation have led to some streams drying up, the report said. In some dry seasons, the riverbed has been exposed and water wells dried up due to a decrease in the volume of water flow.
Not only has this led to crop failure, but cocoa growers reported that their trees have withered due to prolonged sunshine, and vegetable growers have said their produce ripens too early, decreasing its value.
Stagnating water during prolonged rainfall shortages also leaves communities more vulnerable to diarrheal diseases and malaria as mosquito populations increase.
The inhabitants of the Offin River Basin have learned to adapt to changes in water supply by reusing dishwater, laundry water and by harvesting rainwater for irrigation. Rainwater harvesting is a traditional farming method, abandoned after modern boreholes and wells were installed by communities.
Traditional taboos over water use that allowed for a day of rest for a water god or spirit have declined with modernization and the adoption of Christianity, but farmers are now planting drought-resistant crops or moving onto river plains where water is more readily available.
Laws that allowed timber companies to take over farmland led farmers to chop down trees rather than leave them standing were rewritten in 2002. Now farmers are reverting to tradition by incorporating trees into agricultural practises or by protecting trees, the study said.
“As communities live within a given environment for a long period, they acquire a deep understanding and learn to adapt within their environment,” Gyampoh said.
It’s not just about which practices work, he said, but understanding why others fail is just as important to avoid perpetuating mistakes.
“What works as effective traditional knowledge now, has come to be so through years of experimenting and adjusting to a naturally changing environment”
“The challenge communities face is the current fast rate of environmental change against the slow rate at which their practices evolve,” Gyampoh said.
Johnson Nkem, who co-authored the CIFOR study, agrees. While traditional knowledge is important, “modern” or scientific knowledge remains imperative, he said.
“The development of local knowledge leans towards recurrent events that allow communities to build the capacity over time to adapt to the climate impacts, which is not the case with extreme and surprise events,” Nkem said.
“Modern techniques and practices have everything to learn from traditional practices,” he said.
“Knowledge development does not arise from a vacuum. There is nothing scientific or modern that has just ‘sprung up’ out of nowhere. Every piece of modern knowledge arose from the unique customs, beliefs, principles, practices, ideas and wisdom of people at a given time, in a particular place.
“That is traditional knowledge.”
With additional reporting by Andrea Booth
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This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.