A jam jar, a stick and a classroom ruler are giving drought-hit farmers the information needed to protect harvests
UZUMBA, Zimbabwe, March 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - T wo months after the first rains fell in Zunzanyika village last autumn, tensions were high. The rains - which mark the start of the planting season - had disappeared as quickly as they had come, and crops planted in October failed to germinate.
But unlike many of the smallholder farmers in his village, Takesure Chikata never panicked.
Chikata instead turned to his backyard rain gauge. Once the rain finally returned in mid-December, Chikata knew just when it was the right time to plant his maize crop.
For four years, Chikata and 30 other farmers from Zunzanyika, 170 km (100 miles) northeast of the capital, Harare, have compiled detailed records on local rainfall, learning to understand local trends and micro-climates and to cut the risk of crop failure.
The knowledge is helping them to cope not just with drastically changing rainfall patterns, but with severe funding cuts at the government's meteorological department that have left farmers throughout much of the country without reliable local climate and weather data.
"We realised we were making losses from planting without knowledge of the amount of rainfall that (had) occurred and whether it was enough to allow for germination," said Chikata, his cracked hands caressing the green leaves of his maize crop, just a few weeks away from being ready to harvest.
Chikata, 38, chairs the Zunzanyika Farmer Field School, a community project that teaches about climate change and conservation agriculture, and which helped local farmers to install and use the rain gauges.
HOW TO BUILD ONE
The makeshift but effective instruments consist of an old 500g metal or plastic jam container, secured firmly to the top of a tree stump or a wooden pole, 1 metre (3 feet) above the ground.
Each of the 15 gauges in Zunzanyika is carefully stationed in an open space, away from obstacles. The farmers use a classroom ruler to measure the amount of precipitation on the morning after any rainfall. The data is recorded on simple charts kept in their homes, and the information is shared among the field school members.
Chikata says that after four years of gathering data, he and his fellow farmers have a greater appreciation of when rains begin and end, how often dry spells occur and just how long the growing season lasts.
"Now we plant only when we have received at least 25mm (1 inch) of rain in three successive days," he said. "This (rain) gauge has greatly helped the way we practice our agriculture. No more guesswork!"
NO GOVERNMENT DATA
Zimbabwe's climate scientists provide only limited rainfall data, and that is of little use to rural farmers, experts say.
Only a quarter of the country's 1,400 weather stations are currently operational, due to neglect, according to the Meteorological Services Department (MSD), whose budget has been slashed by 25 percent from 2014 levels, to $2.9 million in 2015.
Previously, weather stations placed in rural schools or clinics in the country's drought-prone areas helped provide specific and accurate local data.
Zimbabwe's four weather radars reached the end of their 30-year lifespan a decade ago and have not worked since, according to the MSD's senior meteorologist for climate change, Elisha Moyo. Replacing them will cost $12 million.
Today, the meteorological office tends to produce vague and generalised information for entire provinces, such as Mashonaland Central, which consists of hundreds of large districts with differing climates.
Speaking at a national climate policy workshop in Harare in late 2014, Amos Makarau, the MSD's director, called for political leaders to provide a national vision for improving farmers' ability to adapt to climate change.
CRITICS WON OVER
But the MSD's inefficiencies matter little to the farmers at Zunzanyika.
"By comparing seasonal rainfall trends from their own records and making informed decisions on what to plant and when, the farmers are now better equipped to respond to climate change," said Juliet Gwenzi, a meteorologist at the University of Zimbabwe, by e-mail.
In the past, rains began in November and lasted through April. But with the rainy season now beginning in mid- or late December and barely lasting until the end of February, farmers have turned to small grains and short-season varieties of traditional and hybrid maize, as well as groundnuts, bambara nuts, cowpeas and sunflower, she said.
"Rainfall exhibits huge spatial variability. Therefore, it's important that it is measured over short distances," Gwenzi said. "While there is appreciation that the rain gauge is not standard... the farmers get a fair idea of the rainfall occurring in their locality."
Some experts initially dismissed rain gauges as ineffective but have since come around.
"This is just something the farmers did to get a picture of the amount of rainfall received, whether it was effective for planting and ploughing," Isaac Manenji Zvirewo, the district agriculture extension officer for Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe district, said by telephone.
But Zvirewo acknowledged that local farmers have improved their crop outputs, particularly maize.
"After more than three seasons of record-keeping, they have acquired immense knowledge that has helped their decisions on planting. It's quite beneficial," he said.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Gogo; editing by Laurie Goering)
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