As the communications officer of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, I often give presentations about the institution to students and the public. I like to start with something general, something pithy, such as "Everyone, everywhere, must contend with the climate they live in, and the risks that it poses." I go on to say that the IRI works in places in the world where people are exceedingly susceptible to droughts, floods, fires, epidemics and other climate-related disasters. But I generally speak these words in pleasant settings -- an auditorium, perhaps, or a lecture room -- where the temperature is comfortable, the air is clean, the power stays on, the bandwidth is high.
It isn't until I travel to a place like Niger, in the heart of the Sahel, at the height of the dry season, that I experience the real meaning of my own words. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. Life expectancy there is 54 years, and it has an infant mortality rate higher than any other country except Afghanistan.
Niger is also, undoubtedly, extremely climate vulnerable. The livelihoods of four out of five people in Niger depend on rainfed agriculture. In other words, crops get their water only when it rains, which isn't a given in this part of the world. The Sahel has one rainy season, from June to October, and the amount of precipitation can vary considerably from one year to the next. In some years, the start of the rainy season comes weeks later than normal. Sometimes the rainfall is bunched at the beginning of the season or at its end. Sometimes most of it falls during the middle months. All this causes undue hardships on farming communities already living in poverty. Last year, for example, the rainy season in Niger and its neighboring countries was both shorter and weaker than normal, and crops suffered as a result. So right now, an estimated 18 million people in the Sahel are at risk of going hungry and becoming malnourished.
Under these circumstances, I accompanied IRI scientists Andrew Robertson and Alessandra Giannini to the Centre Regional de Formation et d'Application en Agrométéorologie et Hydrologie Opérationnelle, or Agrhymet for short, based in Niamey, Niger. Robertson and Giannini took part in a regional workshop focused on the predictability and variability of the West African rainy season. Staff from the national meteorological and hydrological services of nearly a dozen countries across the region attended the three-week workshop, sponsored by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, the United States Agency for International Development, the African Development Bank and others. The participants received training on the latest methods and tools for generating more accurate seasonal forecasts for farmers, water-resource managers and other users in their home countries. They also learned how to tease more information about rainfall characteristics out of a forecast.
"If you ask the farmers what they want to know about the upcoming season, it isn't necessarily the amount of rainfall that will fall over the the entire season, but rather when it's likely to start," says Robertson. "The onset of the rainy season, which happens usually sometime in June, is a critical time for farmers because that's when they plant their crops."
Robertson says that the ability to predict seasonal changes in rainfall and temperatures, if effectively applied, could be one of the best adaptation strategies to climate variability and climate change in the Sahel and across sub-Saharan Africa. Mali, for example, has led the way in providing weather and climate information services to farmers in some rural communities, with positive results.
Read more about this over at the CGIAR's Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security blog, and while you're there, be sure to follow its coverage of the Rio+20 conference.
The photos included here offer a visual recap of the trip, with an introduction to Sahel and the climate issues that confront it, as well as more details on the workshop and its participants. To see a version with video interviews, visit this visual essay
Follow @climatesociety and @fiondella on Twitter to get additional updates on the Sahel in the coming weeks.
At dusk, when the day starts to cool, the people of Niamey begin to gather on the banks of the Niger River. They play soccer, volleyball, they wash their laundry and tend to their gardens on land that three months previous would have been under water.
Venture into Niger, in the heart of the Sahel, in the heart of the dry season, and you will bake and broil. Not a drop of rain has fallen here in months.
The hot, dry harmattan winds that blow down from the Sahara brush dust onto everything. Your camera, your teeth, your eyelids. Your food.
The Sahel is a semiarid band of land south of the Sahara that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Its name is derived from Arabic and means 'shore' or 'coast'. The Sahel's vegetation marks the end of the Sahara's vast sea of sand.
Niger River at about half of its wet-season width.
Camels, goats and cattle are not an uncommon site on the Kennedy Bridge in Niamey, the capital of Niger.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Sahel became ground zero for a series of prolonged droughts and devastating famines. More than a million people died and millions more became malnourished.
Some of the most advanced kingdoms in Africa's history flourished in the Sahel. But today it is one of the poorest and least developed regions in the world. It is also one of the most vulnerable to climate change and variability.
Because of this variability, the region is prone to droughts, flooding events, food insecurity and malnutrition, and also epidemics of climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria and meningitis. Here, children are getting immunized against meningitis.
In fact, right now, 20 million people in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and other Sahelian countries are at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition.
To live in the Sahel is to learn to live with significant changes in rainfall from one year to the next, and, as the droughts in the late twentieth century taught us, from one decade to the next. The regions's sole rainy season runs from June to September. The rest of the year, the landscape is bone-dry.
The majority of agriculture in the Sahel is rained, meaning crops get water when the skies let loose. Most farmers do not have access to irrigation.
Abdou Ali is a hydrologist at the Centre Regional de Formation et d'Application en Agrométéorologie et Hydrologie Opérationnelle, or Agrhymet for short. Agrhymet, based in Niamey, is dedicated to achieving food security and increased agricultural production in West Africa, as well as improving management of the region's natural resources.
In 2011, the rainy season performed poorly. As a result, agricultural productivity was lower, too.
Most rural families in Niger right now are trying to stretch their food supplies to last until the next harvest, in October, or find ways to buy additional food.
Not surprisingly, however, grain prices have been high in markets, and many families haven't been able to buy food. As already-meager supplies start to dwindle, calls for humanitarian assistance have grown more urgent.
Because most farming here is wholly dependent on direct rainfall, understanding how the upcoming rainy season is likely to perform becomes critical for risk management. In fact, developing and applying the ability to predict seasonal changes in rainfall and temperatures could be one of the best adaptation strategies to climate variability and climate change in Sub-Saharan Africa.
By developing and disseminating information about the coming rainy season even before it starts, we can help farmers, water resource managers and humanitarian organizations be better prepared and hopefully better able to adapt.
Abdou Ali and his colleagues at Agrhymet organized a three-week workshop on better understanding and predicting the rainy season's impact on crops and rivers in West Africa.
Staff from the national meteorological and hydrological services from nearly every country in the Sahel attended.
Tandia Traore from Mali, and Halimatou Diallo, from Gunieé, two meteorological scientists, work on generating a sample seasonal forecast during the workshop.
Andrew Robertson and Alessandra Giannini, climate scientists from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, traveled to Niamey to lead part of the training.
Agenda for the workshop.
Predictability of West African Rainfall lecture.
Many international institutions supported the workshop. These included the African Development Bank, the European Union, the US Agency for International Development, and the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
The farming village of Soudouré lies ten miles west of Niamey, on the banks of the Niger River.
We visited th village to get a sense of how farmers live, what they are growing and how they adjusted to the poor crop yields last year.
Farmers here typically grow sorghum, millet and cowpea.
After the poor harvests of 2011 these village women decided to start a vegetable garden, irrigated by river water pumped into large cisterns. They were able to sell a surplus of vegetables in the city's markets to buy grains.
Building on the women's success the village men have started their own irrigated garden in an adjacent field. Seasonal forecasts could ultimately help expand the use of irrigation through water resource management.
But unlike Soudouré, most farming communities in Niger and across the Sahel don't have the relative luxury of a second harvest. They generally get one shot at growing food, which is why forecasts that are tailored to farmers' needs and that can tell them as much as possible about the characteristics of an upcoming growing season can be so vital to their livelihoods.
Follow Francesco Fiondella on Twitter: www.twitter.com/fiondella