LAMU, Kenya - (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Mohammed Ngalo brushes his teeth with a twig, he looks up to the sky for a sign that rain is coming.
"The April rains started late and stopped early, while the October rains were less abundant than usual, reducing our pastures," the herder explained.
Since 2013, Ngalo and his family of five have been away from their traditional grazing grounds in Kenya's Garissa county, searching for increasingly scarce food and water for their cattle.
After a 300 km trek by foot to Wajir county, they moved on to Lamu county in January with their cows. But even here they are finding more pastoralists and animals than grass and water.
"The Lamu forest belt has always had grass even when other grazing fields are dry – but it seems everyone has converged here," said Ngalo, shaking his head.
As climate change brings more weather extremes, including droughts, pastoralists need better information to make good decisions about their herds. But most still lack even basic help tracking weather patterns and grass and water availability.
An initiative launched in March, however, aims to change that. The Weather Information Services for Africa (WISER) program, backed by the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), hopes to help 400,000 households in East Africa access early warning weather and climate information and help them make more informed decisions.
The program delivers simple climate information via radio programs held weekly or more frequently if needed.
BETTER INFORMATION, BETTER DECISIONS
Such help may be one way to avert livestock losses and forced migration, said Joseph Mukabana, regional director for Africa and the Least Developed Countries at the World Meteorological Organization.
Access to reliable weather information and early warning systems could help pastoralists like Ngalo prepare for more erratic weather and make better decisions, he said.
Yazan Elhadi, research coordinator at the Adaptation Consortium – another initiative funded by DFID - agreed much more information is needed.
"Currently the dissemination of weather information to pastoralists comes very late, sometimes a week into the dry season, disrupting their planning of whether to migrate, leave any animals behind or stock fodder," he said.
According to the International Livestock Research Institute, pastoralists often lose livestock in periods of drought. Ngalo said that since leaving Garissa they had seen their herd of 700 cattle reduced to less than 600.
"I pray every day that the rains will fall for a few days, so that I can salvage a few animals. I cannot go home empty-handed," he added.
Jacob Orahle, senior warden at the Kenya Wildlife Service, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that since September Lamu county has seen an influx of animals and herders in search of pasture and water, most from neighboring Garissa, Tana River, Wajir and Garsen counties.
"Until it rains or they are assured of pasture elsewhere, they are likely to stay here," he said.
The surge in migration has led to encroachment of cattle in water catchment areas, affected the regeneration of trees and created increased competition for resources, he said.
MIGRATE OR SELL?
Joseph Intsiful, a coordinator of the WISER climate information service, said one goal of the project was to ensure that data gathered by meteorological services is turned into information genuinely useful for herders and farmers.
"We need to bridge the gap between those who produce climate information – like met offices – and end-users such as farmers by communicating knowledge in local languages that the users can identify with," he said.
Ayub Shaka, senior assistant director of public weather and outreach services at the Kenya Meteorological Department, said he believes programs like WISER can help pastoralists make smarter choices in times of drought.
"For example, if alerted to a drought, instead of migrating long distances a pastoralist with 200 cows can sell some of the cows and buy hay for the remaining animals, avoiding the need to migrate," he said.
But getting herders to believe the information and act on it is another challenge, he said.
"In the Islamic culture, no one but God can predict the future, which makes it hard for some to believe the information that is being disseminated," he said.
In the meantime, Ngalo, who has not yet heard of WISER, hopes for some rain while he contemplates his next move.
"Had I known the rains would take this long, I would have considered selling off some cows when they were still strong," he said.
(Reporting by Sophie Mbugua; editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)