Climate Witness: Augustine Yelfaanibe, Ghana

“At present the hunger period begin as early as April…”

My name is Augustine Yelfaanibe, I am 36 years old and I am a native of Nandom, a small town in the Upper West Region of Ghana. It is located 30km north of Lawra the District capital. It is also the paramount seat of the Nandom traditional area with a total population of about 15,000—20,000. The indigenous people are Dagara who are mostly farmers and yet most of them hardly live above subsistence level.

Ecologically, the region is part of the broad northern savanna eco-zone of Ghana which also encompasses the Upper East and Northern Regions of the country. The vegetation is characterised by the guinea savanna type with scattered drought resistant trees such as the Shea, the baobab, dawadawa and neem.

Like the vegetation, the climate is one that is common to the three northern regions. There are two seasons — the dry season (early November to late March) and the wet season (early April and ends in October), which is when we farm. During the dry season, the region comes under the influence of cold and hazy harmattan winds, particularly during the nights and early morning, and then we have high temperatures by mid-day. The temperature in this region traditionally ranges between a low of 15 degrees C at night during the dry season and a high of about 40 degrees C in the day during the hottest period which is around late March, just before the onset of the rainy season in April.

These conditions pose challenges for inhabitants of this region in many ways, even if climate change remained a non-issue. Generally, people have to adapt in many ways to be meet every day challenges of life under deteriorating environmental conditions and more recently changing climatic conditions.

Changing patterns in rainfall

In the days of my childhood in the mid-1970s up to about the late 1980s, signs of a rainy weather used to start to become obvious by mid-march. As the rains started early, most farmers were seen busy preparing their land soon after every New Year celebration so as to make an early harvest of crops such as groundnut, beans and sometimes maize to enable the battle the hunger period that used to peak in July each year.

The rains were more predictable and farmers could plan more precisely. Failure to rain or poor rains was an isolated incident for local farmers. Indigenous farmers often believed that it was a bad omen — the result of someone having offended the gods by having sex in the farms or by killing and spilling human blood on the land.

Except for isolated cases of bad rains, indigenous crops fared well at the time and July for most farming households was relatively short. But now the goal posts have shifted and over the past 20 years it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to predict when the rain would begin. Even when the rains start late they are more erratic with higher variation than ever before. The rains begin to fall very little and end little or with floods or vice versa. Thus, year in year out, farmers tend to have basically one of two complains: “I harvested less because the rains failed” or: “my crops did not do well this year because the rains were too much”.

Undoubtedly, the reliability of rainfall has serious implications for crop production for subsistent households. For instance in 2007, rains were scanty in the beginning resulting in an initial drought and by the time most crops almost withered away the rains returned very heavily resulting in serious floods in most parts of northern Ghana. For the 2008 cropping season, most farmers only began planting their staples about 6 weeks ago. Initially, this was the period that beans are flowering and groundnut is being harvested by some farmers.

Drying up of streams

It has also come to my notice that some streams and ponds that I know used to carry water sometime all year round become dry up sometimes only a few months after the rains have stopped.

I believe this is partly explained by the scanty nature of the rains vis-à-vis rising temperatures. The impact here for most livestock farmers is that there is not enough water for the animals during the dry season and hence animals that travel far in search of water end up being stolen. Or sometimes they die.

Prolonged “July”

Ordinarily, July is the seventh month of every year. In this context however it is a term coined by the indigenous Dagara/Dagaaba population to reflect the peak of the lean season. It is the period that used to precede the early harvest of yam, beans, maize and groundnuts every farming season.

During this period, most farmer households in the savanna regions exhaust their food stock and are barely waiting for the new harvest. Indeed, this period used to be relatively short because of the nature of the rains at the time. At present the hunger period or lean seasons for some farmer households begin as early as April and often can drag up to middle of September, thereby making life unbearable for such households. It is my conviction that explanations to such outcomes are connected to the issue of climate change.

Scientific review
Reviewed by: Dr Francis Obeng, University for Development Studies, Ghana

Augustine’s description and perceptions about the climatic conditions in the Nandom area in particular and the Upper West Region as a whole is consistent with what pertain in literature about climate in the area.

The observations about the changing patterns in rainfall are true. Rainfall variability has increased over the years to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict the patterns of rainfall year after year. The rains start a bit late now compared to earlier years. The occurrence of intermittent drought even in the rainy season is also increasing. This means that crop failure because of inadequate rain during the cropping season is increasing.

The drying up of some rivers, streams and ponds during certain parts of the years is also a reality. Some riverbeds that used to carry copious quantities of water all year round are now empty because of increased rainfall variability and prolonged droughts.

Augustine’s views about prolonged “July” is, however, only somewhat consistent with peer-reviewed literature.

Based on the information provided, I would conclude that with the exception of the views on prolonged ”July” the observations are consistent with peer-reviewed literature on climate in the area.