YAOUNDE, Cameroon, May 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For many of the past five years, Marthe Efoulan, a 42-year-old farmer in Meyomessala, in southern Cameroon, has been fooled into planting her crops too soon.
Rain has come unusually early in February, and Efoulan - used to planting when the rain begins - puts in her maize crop. But then the rains stop as quickly as they came, putting her young crop in peril.
"My three-weeks-old maize crop all withered," she complained of this year's crop.
Farmers across Central Africa continue to fall prey to changing climate patterns, leading to the failure of their crops and devastating drops in income.
One way to help, experts say, is to arm farmers with accurate information about climate patterns so they can better plan their planting schedules and adapt to weather disasters.
Currently less than 20 percent of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services operating in the region are useful for decision-making and development planning, mainly due to weak staffing and degraded infrastructure, according to a report by the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Now authorities have unveiled plans for a new meteorological service they hope will give a major boost to Central Africa's goals of climate change resilience.
At a meeting in Yaounde in April, environment and climate experts announced the creation of the Central African Meteorological Center, a new hydro-meteorological hub that will capture weather and climate data and disseminate the information to farmers and other users.
This data, say the experts, is essential to supporting economic development and helping the region adapt to changing weather patterns.
Cameroon has offered to host the new centre's headquarters in its economic capital, Douala.
"The creation of a climate change meteorological centre in the Central African region is vital," said Dominique Kuitsouk, head of Cameroon's Department of Disaster and Emergency Services.
At the same time, the existing meteorological service will be modernised.
Under the auspices of the recently launched ClimDev-Special Fund, which focuses on climate-resilient development in Africa, the African Development Bank and the World Bank are providing $13.4 million to update many of the African Regional Climate Centers across the continent.
The money will go towards, among other things, installing better regional transmission systems and weather prediction systems, as well as developing the capacity of people in the centers.
After the initial investment, the cost of maintaining the updated National Meteorological and Hydrological Services could run to a minimum of between $100 million and $150 million per year, according to a report by the AfDB.
"The setting up of these infrastructures requires huge financial resources to ensure quality services and reliable results," said Bernard Edward Gomez, principal meteorologist at Gambia's Department of Water Resources.
KEY TO FOOD SECURITY
Convinced that better weather prediction is key to economic stability, a group of economic blocs - including the Economic Community of Central African States and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa - have agreed to foot the bill, with support from the World Bank and African Development Bank.
While the new and improved meteorological centres will allow Central Africa's farmers access to more accurate climate data, the information is wasted unless farmers know what to do with it, experts say.
In Cameroon - whose farmers have been severely affected by flooding and other increasingly unpredictable weather - the Ministry of Agriculture is working with several non-governmental organisations to set up a programme to inform farmers about changing climate challenges and train them to adapt.
Agricultural extension agents and NGO workers will community radio and text messaging, among other methods, to get climate data to farmers.
Farmers, in turn, are expected to report changing planting practices and to choose new crops and varieties to plant.
Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ako' Afan, who launched the project in March, said the effort aims to improve food security.
"The highly variable rainfall calendar over the past few years has made it difficult for farmers to plan, and they make the wrong decisions on which crop to plant, and when to plant, leading to disaster for households and families," Afan said.
"This has led to dwindling food crop production, taking away the county's proud status as Central Africa's bread basket."
Seventy percent of the workforce of Cameroon - the largest economy in Central Africa - works in agriculture. The sector provides 42 percent of the country's GDP, according to government statistics.
But over recent years, the nation's farmers have been struggling. Harvests of coffee in the 2013-2014 season, for example, fell by about half compared to previous years, according to the Inter-professional Cocoa and Coffee Council.
"Natural disasters cannot be avoided," said Hele Pierre, Cameroon's Minister of Environment.
"But timely and accurate prediction from well-equipped meteorology infrastructure can help societies, especially vulnerable communities, prepare for and mitigate disaster and reduce losses from extreme weather." (Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Laurie Goering)
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