06/27/2012 02:59 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Into the Heart of Dryness

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.

Into the Heart of Dryness