by Kieran Guilbert
GUILOKI, Niger, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Moumouni Abdoulaye and his fellow herders in western Niger used to set off on scouting missions in search of water, they feared for their livestock - and for their own lives.
Unable to rely anymore on their traditional methods of predicting the weather amid increasingly erratic droughts and floods, and lacking modern climate information, they struggled to predict where, and when, they might find water in the vast arid region.
"We were living in limbo. Without knowledge, we constantly risked our lives," said Abdoulaye, seeking shade under a tree from the fierce midday sun in Niger's Tillabery region.
But a project to involve the region's semi-nomadic people in the production of locally-specific, real-time weather forecasts - and provide them with radios and mobile phones to receive and share the information - is transforming the lives of tens of thousands of Nigeriens like Abdoulaye.
"Now we receive daily updates about rainfall, can call other communities to ask if they have had rain, and plan our movements accordingly," Abdoulaye told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Niger, as across much of Africa's Sahel region, frequent droughts have impoverished many people and made it much harder to make a living from agriculture. That is happening in a West African country already consistently ranked at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index.
With climate change now exacerbating pressures, experts say there is a growing and urgent need for better climate information, to ensure farmers and pastoralists are equipped to cope with unpredictable rainfall and climate shocks.
Across Africa, only limited climate data is collected and made available, and information services are often not well understood, user-friendly, or followed up to help people put the information to use in adapting to climate threats, experts say.
Ensuring that communities play a role - alongside state and aid agencies - in generating and sharing weather information is the best way to get them to use it and to build their resilience to the growing pressures, said Blane Harvey of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
"Co-participation is very powerful because people will buy into a service if they've had a hand in producing it," he said.
"Crucially, they bring in their local knowledge, which helps to downscale and triangulate more regionalised forecasts," added Harvey, a research associate at the London-based thinktank.
A lack of weather stations across Africa means that forecasts, produced by national meteorological agencies, tend to be too broad to be of much use at a local level.
But a project launched in 2015, funded by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) and led by CARE International, is trying to improve the quality of and access to climate data for farmers and pastoralists in western Niger.
CARE's project under the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme aims to help 450,000 people become better prepared for climate shocks, including through giving them access to better forecasts.
The goal is to help them diversify their farming and find ways of making money which are not so heavily impacted by climate change, in order to better withstand climate pressures.
For farmer Adamou Soumana, improved access to climate information has given his village a better understanding of the weather shocks they are encountering, and the confidence to adopt resilience boosting strategies such as using climate-adapted seeds, finding sustainable ways to harvest forest products, and storing harvests.
"Previously, if it rained in January, we rushed to plant our crops thinking the rainy season starts - when in fact it never comes before May," he said.
"Now we understand climate shocks, and can plan our activities in advance. We feel more resilient," he said.
The BRACED project has helped communities by acting as a broker between them and meteorological agencies, and ensuring agency partners are trained to interpret climate data, translate it into local languages and help people to make sense of the forecasts.
The project also connects local people who collect rainfall data, as well as other farming and pastoralist leaders, with community radio stations to share real-time information daily.
Incorporating traditional observations - such as when trees bloom or the way birds behave - and having regular discussions with communities is key to building and maintaining trust in climate information services, said Richard Ewbank of Christian Aid, another charity working on climate resilience issues.
"Having experts and community leaders together and combining local knowledge with scientific forecasts is the best way to agree on a climate scenario, and make key decisions for the coming season," said the global climate advisor for the charity.
LIFE OR DEATH DECISIONS
In addition to improving the quality of climate information and making it more relevant on a community-by-community basis, the BRACED project in Niger has provided mobile phones and radios to boost the spread of the forecasts.
"Receiving and sharing the information in this way not only helps pastoralists know when and where to move, it also builds relationships and trust between people," said Amadou Adamou of the Association for the Revitalization of Livestock Breeding.
Good information can not only help pastoralists find water sources but also help them know when to sell their animals, especially if drought is on the way, according to Adamou.
The mobile phones and radios used are powered by solar cells, enabling pastoralists to get forecasts while on the move. They also are given to both male and female community chiefs to ensure women have equal access to the information.
While better climate data has improved resilience for many in Tillabery region, in both settled and nomadic communities, there is still much room for improvement, several experts said.
Residents want to see more meteorological advisers based locally who can help them have regular discussions about the forecasts.
They also want more help to convert the data into action on the ground such as diversifying the crops they grow and better planning the timing and direction of their migration routes in search of water. They also want the information service expanded to cover neighbouring countries.
"Getting better forecasts is one thing. But having good, solid advice about what the information means, and discussions on how to use it to become more resilient, is what people in the region really want," said Harouna Hama Hama of CARE.
For roaming communities like Abdoulaye's - people who cross into neighbouring Benin, Burkina Faso and Togo with their livestock - expanding the climate data effort to produce region-wide forecasts could mean the difference between life and death for many of their members, Abdoulaye said.
"Whenever some of our people head to these countries, they and the animals risk dying of thirst," he said. "With better forecasts, and for the whole region, we could lose fewer lives."
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)