Is rainfall really changing? Farmers’ perceptions, meteorological data and the problem of saying ‘climate change’ in Chichewa and Setswana

For farmers to successfully adapt to changes in rainfall, the roles of farmers’ perceptions and semantic challenges should not be underestimated, say Elisabeth Simelton, Claire Quinn, Nnyaladzi Batisani, Andrew Dougill, Jen Dyer, Evan Fraser, David Mkwambisi, Susannah Sallu and Lindsay Stringer


Understanding what farmers think about how rainfall fluctuates and changes is crucial. It helps us anticipate the impact of changing climate, because only when a problem is identified will people take steps to adapt to it.

Farmers, especially, need to adapt or we will experience even greater food shortages because alternatives are not developed fast enough.

Accordingly, to better understand what farmers thought about rainfall patterns, we asked southern African farmers about their perceptions of rainfall variations and changes over time. Then we examined the meteorological evidence and asked why there were discrepancies between farmers’ perceptions and meteorological observations of rainfall.

We started with a series of semi-structured interviews with farmers in Botswana and Malawi and found that most farmers thought that the rains used to start earlier and end later.

Photographer Elisabeth Simelton, donkeys, Malawi, Botswana

Rainfall is already in short supply

But the meteorological data provided no evidence to support this particular perception. However, we did find that there was a high variability from year to year in the start of the rains and there was an increasing number of dry days and declining amounts of rainfall at the start and end of the rainy season.

One explanation for the differences between farmers’ perceptions and meteorological evidence was that rainfall changes can be easily confused with changes in the sensitivity of farming systems. For example, in Malawi, if farmers used local varieties of seeds they usually had roughly the same amount of harvest from year to year despite changes in the weather. However, farmers who used hybrid varieties might experience large harvests one year and poor harvests the next because these plants were more sensitive to shortages or fluctuations in water availability.

Another key factor that could potentially limit adaptation and confuse the communication of climate information was a lack of words. During our fieldwork we found that yosadalilika in Chichewa (spoken in Malawi) was synonymous with ‘unpredictable’ rain and pula e e sa ikanyegeng in Setswana (spoken in Botswana) referred to ‘unreliable’ rain.

In Chichewa, the phrase for climate change, kusintha kwa nyengo, referred to both short- and long-term variability. Setswana did not yet have a word for ‘climate change’.

Therefore, before establishing adaptation strategies, policy makers and project managers should make sure that they are talking about the same weather, climate, change and variability as the farmers they intend to assist.

Three main lessons can be learned from the factors we identified as confounding perceptions of rainfall.

First, referring to ‘now’ versus ‘before’ is precarious because the recent period is generally more vivid in memory.

Second, with regard to adaptive capacity, it is important to separate ‘re-active’ and ‘pro-active’ behaviours because some people plant early, others late or not at all. These differences can influence the ways that farmers think about rainfall.

Third, it is essential to identify which policies and subsidies raise farmers’ and—scientists’—expectations of improved yields but don’t help farmers’ ability to interpret and respond to a changing climate.

What does this mean for policy?

First, adaptation policies are unlikely to be successful if scientists, policymakers, practitioners (for example, development and extension workers) and farmers perceive changes in weather differently and fail to distinguish between rainfall changes, yield changes owing to rainfall or the sensitivity of farming systems to rainfall.

Second, for the agricultural sector to adapt to climate change, top–down climate exposure and impact scenarios need to be verified with farmers and agricultural advisory workers. Farmers are most interested in the current weather and its impact on their livelihoods rather than thinking many years into the future.

Third, policymakers would be able to more clearly anticipate ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ linked to the development of new policies if they forged stronger contacts with agricultural advisory workers and diverse groups of farmers. This would encourage agreement on what aspects of climate, farming and livelihoods’ systems seemed to be changing, and how, rather than viewing them in isolation. It would also be wise to estimate the impact of these system changes, identify options for adaptation and prioritize measures that require relatively low effort but have high impact.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read the article

Simelton E, Quinn CH, Batisani N, Dougill AJ, Dyer JC, Fraser EDG, Mkwambisi N, Sallu S, Stringer LC. Is rainfall really changing? Farmers’ perceptions, meteorological data, and policy implications. Climate and Development. DOI:10.1080/17565529.2012.751893




This work is related to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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