Science meets God in climate forecasting

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Some drought-stressed farmers in southern Africa might be slow to respond to seasonal climate forecasts, because of deeply held beliefs that natural phenomena such as climate and weather, or crop production, are ‘in God’s hands’. This might prevent them from responding to early warning notifications issued by their regional meteorological services, that the forthcoming season might bring severe droughts or floods that could undermine crop production or livestock management.

But working alongside traditional and religious leaders could be a way of bringing current scientific knowledge about climate change, and these seasonal forecasts, into farmers’ day-to-day decision making in a way that can help them to be more flexible as the climate across the region becomes hotter and drier.
This is the finding of researchers from the University of Namibia (UNAM) and the University of Cape Town’s ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) research project, who spoke with farmers in northern Namibia and Botswana in 2017 following four years of protracted drought across the region.

‘When we spoke with farmers here, many of them said that they were waiting to see what type of drought God was going to bring, before they decided on whether or not to sell their livestock, or when to plant their crops,’ explains ASSAR researcher Bonolo Mosime.

Some farmers in Botswana said they believed that rainfall is ultimately controlled by God. Although many still said they had faith in the meteorological service’s regular seasonal climate forecasts. These are circulated to farmers mostly through radio and TV broadcasts, and many farmers interviewed by researchers appeared willing to respond to the early warning systems. However researchers note that there were still some who appeared reluctant to respond to the forecasts especially in Namibia where, according to ASSAR researcher Angela Chappel, ‘farmers didn’t believe men could predict the weather as it is controlled by God’.

These communities are at the coalface of climate change: they’re subsisting in remote agriculture-dependent rural economies, in semi-desert parts of the subcontinent that are already drought stressed but nevertheless dependent on rain to support their crops and herds. Responding to forecasts which warn of delayed rains, or extended years of drought, can help farmers change the timing of when they plant, or switch to more drought-tolerant crop varieties.

The solution, according to Mosime and her team, is not to try and replace farming decisions that are based on observations of the natural environment that lean on traditional knowledge systems with the seasonal climate forecasts produced by meteorological services. Rather, farmers should find ways to integrate the two approaches, so that they can be more responsive to changing conditions.

There is an opportunity here to work with religious and traditional value systems, rather than against them, in order to help farmers become more flexible and resilient as the climate continues to warm and, in these parts, likely dry too.

‘Participatory processes are needed to bring together local forecast information with national meteorological forecasts to provide more relevant forecasts that are tailored to local contexts. Traditional and religious leaders can also act as knowledge brokers and champions to promote the uptake of climate smart agricultural practices’ explains Spear.

If development agencies and governments communicate climate-smart practices in a way that reminds people they can take these measures as a way of protecting what is sacred, farmers might be more likely to include them in the way they manage their farms and herds.


This article was funded by ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), a research consortium looking at climate change in semi-arid parts of Africa and India.