Kenyan drought puts traditional weather forecasters on the defensive

by Abjata Khalif | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 February 2012 14:33 GMT
But new ways of predicting erratic weather are in the plans for Kenya's arid north

MARSABIT, Kenya (AlertNet) – Nomadic communities living off the dry terrain of northern Kenya have relied for generations on the powers of village elders to predict the weather. But the divinations of traditional forecasters were confounded by an unexpectedly severe drought in 2011, threatening herders’ livelihoods.

Now pastoralists and meteorological experts are trying to find better ways to cope with regional weather that is increasingly difficult to anticipate - a situation some believe is linked to climate change.

Herders in Marsabit district use traditional weather forecasting systems linked to the seasons and the calendar. These include phenology (the study of plant and animal life cycles), animal behaviours, astrology, studying animal entrails and divining.

Elders detect changes in temperature and humidity from a tree locally known as the marer. They observe the migratory patterns of species of birds, and trace the progress of stars in the sky or look for the presence of particular stars in constellations.

In the belief system of the Marsabit communities, all this information can be used to forecast particular weather events such as long or short periods of rainfall, flash flooding, dry spells, or cold weather that could cause illness in people and livestock. The level of pasture in the region can also be foretold on this basis.

When the elders predict a dry spell, herders may move to other areas with more water and pasture, or even cross the border into Ethiopia, to return once the situation has improved. They may sell their goats, sheep and cattle and buy camels, which are better able to withstand drought. Others slaughter their older cattle and preserve the meat to use as food during the dry period.


Using their traditional forecasting systems, the elders in Marsabit district predicted that rains would fail in the area from October or November 2010 until April 2011, but that after this dry spell the situation would return to normal. This information was relayed to the community through the network of traditional elders in every village in the district.

As anticipated, there were only erratic rains towards the end of 2010, and then a dry period. But the onset of rain predicted for April never occurred, and the situation rapidly turned catastrophic.

With livestock weakened, pasture diminished and the water running dry for people and livestock, thousands of herders crossed into southern Ethiopia in search of water and pasture, while others fled remote villages for towns in search of food and pasture.

Abdi Boru, from the Turbi area of Marsabit, said he lost 23 head of cattle in the drought, leaving him with just two.

“The situation changed to worse from (what the elders) predicted and everybody started losing livestock in high numbers. We could not move them across the border as they were weak, and we watched while they died,” said Boru.

When rains finally came in November 2011, they were so heavy that there was flash flooding, which the traditional forecasters also failed to predict.

Kunu Halakano, an elder in Dambalfanchana village, said he was shocked by the turn of events.

“We have given our community weather information for many years, and that assisted them in understanding what to expect and plan, but now I am seeing something else from what we predicted. We predicted good rains after the dry spell and (yet) the rains failed from April to October,” said Halakano.

The forecaster blamed the failure of the traditional predictions on powers beyond the elders’ knowledge and systems. Elders have met repeatedly to discuss what happened, and some say the problem lay with insufficient attention to signs in the natural world.

Boru Duba, an elder from Dirib Gombo village, said that he had predicted the dry spell from October to April based on the behaviour of cattle and sheep, particularly their lack of interest in mating, strange noises they had been making, and the cattle coiling their tails.

“These scenarios perfectly matched the dry spell or minor droughts that hit the region occasionally from October to April. The last time we saw this minor drought was 10 years ago, and the situation then returned to normal,” said Duba.

But he said that the elders had not properly taken into account other telltale signs, such as the non-appearance of certain migratory birds, and the failure of frogs to make certain noises at the time that the birds would normally arrive.

“Without these signs and behaviours from the birds and frogs, I knew something was amiss in our prediction,” said Duba.

Despite the failure of the forecast, pastoralists’ strong cultural ties to traditional systems of forecasting make them reluctant to stop believing in them.

“I still respect the traditional weather system and I will always follow (the elders’) advice. They have offered us valuable weather information during the worst drought periods like that the ones in 1984, 1992 and 2005, and their prediction was right,” said Abdi Boru.

“They have already told us the problem that caused the wrong prediction and I hope it will never happen again,” he added.


Development organisations within Marsabit district recognise that the belief in traditional systems is unlikely to be abandoned. In response, they are urging relevant agencies to team up with local elders in order to integrate their knowledge with current early warning systems that can produce accurate and timely information.

Kenya’s ministry overseeing the development of the north and other arid lands is now working with the country’s meteorological department to map the traditional system of weather forecasting with a view to mainstreaming it with the department’s modern system.

Integrated weather forecasts can be broadcast to the pastoralist communities through community radio in local languages, providing consistent information to each village. Officials believe that this approach will work as long as it does not downplay the traditional systems and ensures that their data are respected and reflected in the forecasting.

Tari Konso of Pastoralist Development Agencies, a local non-governmental organisation, said, “Such integrated collaboration could save lives, prevent displacements, save herds of livestock from decimation and reduce suffering to manageable levels.”

Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.

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