The climate scientist and the teacher

From Naudet, J (2000) Finding Problems to Fit the Solutions: Twenty Years of Aid to the Sahel, OECD Publishing, Paris
From Naudet, J (2000) Finding Problems to Fit the Solutions: Twenty Years of Aid to the Sahel, OECD Publishing, Paris

Laurent Bossard, Director, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

In the second of the SWAC/OECD Secretariat’s West African Papers series (“Climate Impacts in the Sahel and West Africa: The Role of Climate Science in Policy Making”), Carlo Buontempo and Kirsty Lewis of the Met Office UK consider the role climate science plays in policy making.

I had thought about calling this blog: “Don’t leave climate change policy solely to climate scientists!”. After all, the authors themselves stress that climate scientists are not necessarily fully equipped to identify what the key components of climate and climate change are in relation to a population’s needs. In the end, I resisted the temptation because I sincerely admire this profession whose daunting task it is to help us build a better future for the planet.

The question is: “how can the terabytes of data generated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate models be of use to African farmers?”. If a farmer is asked what they need, their reply will probably be for more accurate and local short-term weather forecasts to ensure that their seeds are sown at the right time. It would seem therefore that a distinction has to be made between meteorologists – who are likely to cater to the farmer’s request – and climate scientists.

The authors of this paper remind us that climate change is not just about a change in climate towards hotter, wetter, and drier conditions, but also about an increase in the variability of the climate, as well as in the number and severity of extreme events. So yes, it would be very useful to provide more accurate weather forecasts but, for all this, the need to factor in the structural dynamics associated with climate change would remain unaddressed.  Helping farmers to anticipate these dynamics and manage risk is what a “climate service” should be able to offer its African users.

Everybody seems to agree on this issue but the “how” is apparently still far from being resolved. The argument developed in this paper is that agricultural and rural communities should be listened to in order to understand how the “climate factor” fits in with their specific problems, opportunities and prospects.  The climate factor does not, therefore, replace all other issues faced by African farmers, but is an addition to them. The climate factor could thus be of central importance or less relevant, a triggering or aggravating mechanism, all depending on the context. As a result, importance should be placed upon defining the issues and asking the right questions.

I believe this message is important because it reminds us of the importance of the “human factor”. Back in 1967, a teacher named Lédéa-Bernard Ouedraogo, from Yatenga province in what is now Burkina Faso, decided to create a  “Naam group” in his village –  an adaptation of the traditional Mossi community association called Kombi-Naam, or “power to young people”. A form of agricultural and environmental cooperative, the Naam was constructed on the following five pillars which define its actions: its members, what they know, what they experience, what they know how to do and what they want. Accordingly, the Naam creates projects which are tailored to the environment, which meet the needs of its members and which are achievable. It is, in essence, a tool which promotes and develops local expertise.

The initiative has now spread throughout Yatenga province and the entire country. The National Federation of Naam Groups now comprises over 5 000 groups and over 600 000 members. Building on the Naam network, Lédéa Bernard Ouedraogo was one of the creators of the 6S Association (“Savoir se servir de la saison sèche en savane et au Sahel”) in 1976. The National Federation of Naam Groups and the 6S Association formed the basis for disseminating straightforward, effective techniques for what is now known as “climate smart” agriculture. As a result, we see that areas where climate scientists might once have said crops could no longer grow because of a lack of rain, are now using “Zaï” (30cm in diametre micro-basins scattered throughout the fields) and “boulis” (small catchments for storing water run-off).

During the 1980s when Niger’s Maradi region was severely affected by aridification, farmers had the idea of allowing trees to grow naturally in their fields. These trees help to protect against wind and soil erosion, enrich the soil with the manure of animals taking refuge in their shade, and limit temperature and evaporation, and thus effectively reduce the need for water.  According to the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, “assisted natural regeneration” has made it possible to regenerate hundreds of thousands of hectares of land not only in Niger but also in Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

The IPCC did not exist in the 1970s and early 1980s and when I read this paper, I wondered what the teacher and the climate scientist might have said to one another had they met in Yatenga. I believe that such an encounter between the science of mathematical models and the science of traditional knowledge would have been mutually beneficial and that the need to further co-ordinate efforts between disciplines, sectors and other fields of development is becoming increasingly essential.

Useful notes

OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)

OECD Work on climate change

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