African farmers’ perceptions of erratic rainfall

Produced as part of the Adaptation to climate change and human development CCCEP research programme theme

Abstract of Working Paper 73

Farmers’ perceptions of how rainfall is changing is crucial in anticipating the effects of climate change, as only farmers who perceive a problem will adapt to it. However, even within the same location, people may perceive rainfall changes differently. Therefore, how can scientists, practitioners, and farmers ensure that they talk about the same rainfall changes?

The overall aim of this paper is to improve the understanding of what people mean when they say rainfall is becoming more erratic. To do this we used interviews to identify farmers’ perceptions of rainfall changes from four semi-arid regions in four African countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana and Malawi. This was integrated with (daily or monthly) meteorological data to assess the perceived and actual rainfall. A conceptual rainfall matrix was designed to organise the data in terms of perceptions of onset, duration or cessation. Semi-structured interviews were used to identify factors that may confound perceptions of changes in rainfall.

The matrix helped to clarify ways in which rainfall was becoming “more erratic”, in particular in identifying that increasing frequency of dry days and reduced amounts of rainfall (ie a meteorological definition) were behind perceptions that rainy seasons started later and finished earlier. A common perception that could not be found within meteorological data was that “rainfall used to start earlier than now”. Also, the timings of the perceived changes diverged. Perceptions that could be reproduced across datasets include “it is difficult to know when the rainy season starts”. Here, “more erratic rainfall” may refer to increasing inter-annual variability in the timing of onsets (using an agronomic definition), which resulted in less predictable rainy seasons.

Factors confounding perceptions of rainfall include (lack of and existing) institutional support that prevent farmers from responding at the onset of the rainy season, as well as a lack of words to express variability and change.

We introduce “access droughts” to denote crop failures that result from institutional support that leads to maladaptation strategies and increased sensitivity of the agricultural system. Access droughts are sometimes mistaken (by farmers, scientists, extension, policymakers, etc) for agronomic or meteorological droughts.

The research suggests that top-down climate impact scenarios need to be grounded with farmers’ and extension workers’ understandings of how weather is changing more carefully in order to improve policy implementation. The graphs presented in this paper are an attempt to contribute to enhanced clarity in such communications