Forecasting a better future

By Elizabeth Stevens
A farmer discusses the implications of the ACEDRR findings on rainfall trends. The study, says researcher B. Arthirani, "is not a one-way process.

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In the month of July, if the wind blows vibrantly, there will be good rainfall. If softly, no.

— Padmanaban, farmer of Sengapadai

The farmers of the village of Sengapadai, India, make it their business to know what's coming. They are fortune-tellers of sorts, who look deep into history in order to forecast the future. Using methods that have evolved over thousands of years, they watch the movement of the stars, notice the feel of the wind on a given day of the month or year, and carefully observe the behavior of plants and animals. At the heart of the mysteries they set out to unravel each year is this: When will the rains come?

If they miscalculate, the consequences can be grave. In years past, it has meant families postponed not only weddings but also medical care. Sons and daughters have dropped out of school, ending their formal education. They've pawned their jewelry, which represents their savings—even the necklaces that symbolize their marriages. And, says 51-year-old Jakkammal, "In a bad year, there's only one meal a day."

We are not getting proper rain

The specter of bad harvests looms larger than ever these days because, as one farmer put it, "We are not getting proper rain."

Rains are coming when they shouldn't and not coming when they should, and the traditional forecasting methods, unable to adapt to the speed of change, are losing their power to predict.

"There's been a vast difference in rainfall patterns in the last 10 years," says Jeeva Rathinam, another farmer. "Before that, we used to plan properly and plant one kind of seed in the fields. Now we have to mix them together and see what comes up."

"The rainfall variations these farmers are seeing now are defeating their knowledge of the way nature functions," says Hari Krishna, Oxfam's research program manager in India.

Climate change, in other words, has come to Sengapadai.

Researchers and farmers collaborate

The DHAN Foundation's ACEDRR, an Oxfam partner, has set out to help communities adjust to the changing climate landscape. Researcher B. Arthirani, herself the daughter of farmers, gathered and analyzed 40 years' worth of local rainfall data, and on a sweltering day in May 2008, the farmers of Sengapadai came together to learn the results.

Rains that once fell here predictably in July, she told them, can now be expected to arrive in late August. Then she made a proposal: delay sowing peanuts until between Aug. 10 and 16.

A heated discussion followed. Shifting to accommodate the rains could make some crops more vulnerable to infestations of weeds and pests, and the farmers argued pros and cons of various plans. But an hour later, everyone had come to agreement: the best way to balance all the factors would probably be to plant corn in September.

This is not research as it's conducted at universities, where academics carry out studies at a comfortable distance from actual farmers, and where recommendations are conveyed to the villagers in top-down fashion. That day's discussion, which began with Arthirani's educated guess about what to sow when, ended with a practical plan that drew on knowledge from both inside and outside the community. The ACEDRR study, says Arthirani, "is not a one-way process."

Community members are not simply considered beneficiaries of the study, explained Hari Krishna. "Here, they are partners in the research. They know best about their soil, their sky, their water, and what crops suit their needs."

A painful irony

Outside the meeting place, a heifer nosed along the roadside looking for something to graze on, and a bullock cart passed by with a load of fodder. Women headloading firewood and water walked along the dusty main street in the fierce midday sun, and in the distance, a man stood knee-deep in a pond, splashing water on his team of bullocks after what had probably been a morning of hard labor in the fields.

Fossil fuels and all their labor-saving pleasures seem to have bypassed this village entirely. There were no cars or tractors in sight, and despite the scorching temperature, no one was heading home to air conditioning or refrigerated drinks. It is a painful irony that many of those who have done least to bring about climate change are the most vulnerable to its effects.

We are able to have three meals

DHAN is tackling that vulnerability on two fronts: the disaster-oriented research of ACEDRR is helping ensure that changing rainfall patterns don't lead to catastrophic crop losses, while DHAN's development programs are building resilience in other ways—helping those same farmers organize themselves into self-help groups that enable savings and investment; creating federations that have clout in the marketplace; and helping farmers gain access to high-quality seed, affordable insurance, and lenders that charge two percent interest instead of ten.

It is an approach that is working. By November it was clear that the shift from peanuts to corn was a big success. But there are signs everywhere of the growing security of this community—most convincingly in the confident smile of Jakkammal. The days of one bad harvest plunging the community into debt and hunger, it seems, are over. "After joining DHAN," she says, "we are able to have three meals."