dragonfly forecasts

Dragonfly Forecasts Rain? To See Is to Believe

It might be difficult for most city slickers to understand, but yes, a low flying dragonfly is a fairly accurate prognosticator of weather patterns, as is the straightness of a column of ants.

Dr. Muthoni Masinde is often met with skepticism, particularly from some meteorologist, who prefer to depend not on indigenous knowledge but just on scientific instruments. “You need both, particularly in areas of the world where the most common catastrophe is drought,” said Muthoni. However, she can understand the doubters.

We start, however, from the fact that Muthoni is a computer-grounded scientist and has been a practicing meteorologist. So she will be a better businesswoman, she’s also pursuing an MBA.vA native of Kenya, she heads up CUT’s (Central University of Technology, Free State) ITIKI Drought Prediction Tool – CUT is in Bloemfontein,  in central South Africa. She’s a distinguished professor at the University. “We combine traditional forecasts with indigenous knowledge—such as the quirks and habits of insects, birds, and the movement of the grass with the wind,” she said. “They all represent telltale signs.”

Muthoni grew up in a remote village. She listened to her mother’s wisdom about how botanical and zoological characteristics can decipher a coming rain from an impending drought. Her mother learned this from her mother. “If you come of age in the village and a community of poor farmers, it is something you simply know,” she said. “Seeing is believing. But many weather scientists haven’t experienced it.” For example, she explains, farmers know that if at a certain time of the year, if animals are frisky and traveling in packs, rain is coming. They also watched the behavior of ants. If they walked in a straight line, the rain was likely to appear in two weeks.

“By combining science with indigenous knowledge, the picture becomes much clearer.”

Such observations—while tried and true over the years—were not always accurate; the accuracy has further dwindled in the face of climate change. That’s when Muthoni came upon the idea to combine this knowledge with scientific forecasting tools. She developed the program, resulting in farmers increasing their crop yield by 10 percent for those who have subscribed to her system in Kenya, South Africa, and Mozambique.

“Most of the skeptics didn’t grow up in villages. They only believe what they can see or scientifically verify,” said Muthoni. “We have researched on and published a scientific verification tool that will help these skeptical scientists measure and prove the results.” While some of the indigenous information stems from spiritual beliefs of the native people, those are not calculations that are fed into developing Muthoni’s algorithms. “National weather forecasts are too broad,” said Muthoni, who presented her project recently at the World Bank’s Water Week in Washington, DC. “They help in predicting what happens in six months, but it is important to know what will happen in specific areas day-to-day.

“By combining science with indigenous knowledge, the picture becomes much clearer.”

The weather and planting information is distributed to the farmers through text messages that can be received on simple and inexpensive mobile phones in different languages. “Basically, what we have is a bridge between two knowledge systems,” added Muthoni, who has been in South Africa for the last decade. “We aim for accuracy first, followed by relevance to small farmers. The real payoff is in increased yields.”

Obviously, Muthoni has made true believers of the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) project, which is an innovative effort to manage water better and grow food worldwide. It is backed by USAID, and the governments of South Africa, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Out of 1,500 innovators competing for funds, only 35 were chosen worldwide, including Muthoni’s project combining indigenous knowledge with scientific forecasting.

“We hope to export our methodology to other areas impacted by drought,” said Muthoni.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $35 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.