Small ants carry their eggs at a certain time of the year, usually in the middle of May. For traditional farmers, the migration heralds a change of season. Within three days, rain will start to pour and farmers will till their soil and sow seeds for rice or other crops.
Such weather forecasting is an example of the local wisdom that has helped Thai rice farmers for centuries. Despite modern weather forecasts, farmers across the country have relied on wisdom passed down through the generations _ observing signs in nature such as ant migration and the shape of the clouds.
Of course, these farmers listen to weather forecast reports on radio or watch television, but often they end up feeling more confused. Eiem Sompeng, a rice farmer in the Maha Chana Chai district in Yasothon province, explains how one report left him baffled.
"Recently, the weather forecast news from the Meteorological Department told us that there will be a 40% chance of rain in the northeastern region. These forecasts come in a percentage. But in reality, I do not know whether or not my village and my rice farm will be part of the 40% area or not. The weather report is so general... too general if you think about the size of the whole Northeast. That 40% could be any village in Surin, Ubon Ratchathani or any province."
As the seasons usually arrive at the same time each year, farmers have been repeating the same routine. They do not feel any urge to follow the general forecasts from the government's Meteorological Department.
However, the weather pattern has become different and unpredictable recently. The rain pattern in Yasothon province is a good example of the change. Last year, the seasonal rain which typically comes in June was delayed until July. Rain came at the wrong time and drought persisted longer into the rainy season.
Such delays are not trivial issues for farmers, especially those in Yasothon who depend solely on rainwater for rice farming. Farmlands in the province and nearby in the Northeast are not connected to irrigation systems.
Yasothon’s jasmine rice is grown only once a year and sold at premium prices.
The province, one of the five poorest in the country, depends on the weather for its famous hom mali rice _ an export product which provides significant income. The future of hom mali rice plantation in Yasothon is under threat from climate change. However, farmers there have a reason to be hopeful after the Community Weather Forecast Centre (CWFC) opened last month.
For the first time in Thailand, farmers will have an alternative source of information to the government forecasts or relying on their memories and traditional knowledge, and the centre will help them keep up to date while the world and environment increasingly change.
Funded by the European Union, the centre is the result of collaboration between non-governmental organisations and community villagers who practise organic farming. The organisations involved include Oxfam, the Center of Excellence for Climate Change Knowledge Management (CCKM), which is a research centre at Chulalongkorn University, and the Earth Net Foundation, an NGO that promotes sustainable agriculture.
Starting last year, the project provided weekly, monthly and annual weather forecasts for three districts in Yasothon. Fifteen farmers, five from each of the three districts, act as sampling sites to provide local data such as humidity, wind speed and rainfall to CCKM in Bangkok. The data will be used in a weather forecast model designed for specific areas in Yasothon.
CCKM will then send the forecast to the community through various mediums such as SMS, community radio or even asking community leaders to display the forecast at centres such as community hospitals, rice mills or bus stations. Information will be provided for the week, month and year ahead. CCKM will also run predictions based on various scenarios _ normal, mild climate change and serious climate change _ for farmers to manage their risk.
''It make us more confident. It helps us make plans for the production schedule,'' said Eiam.
Weekly and monthly weather forecasts help farmers decide when to plant crops. Importantly, the forecast will help farmers manage water more efficiently.
Armed with this information, Eiam says he can better determine the time and date to hire helpers to sow seeds.
''If the rain is too harsh, I may defer. It is sometimes better to skip... I might decide to save money and resources instead of doing the same thing and losing everything,'' he said.
Farmers in Yasothon are encouraged to record the local weather to create their own forecast model.
''Certainly, I still observe signs from nature. But the weather and the world has been changing, farmers like us can no longer rely on our traditional wisdom. We need science and we need to adjust.''
Earth Net Foundation vice-president Tawatchai Tositrakul acknowledged that for now the scale of the project is very small compared to the number of farmers who could benefit. However, ENF is expecting to launch its next community weather forecasting centre at an organic farm village in Mae Tha subdistrict in Chiang Mai province. Afterwards, ENF plans to expand to strong communities that practise organic farming in the provinces of Kanchanaburi, Suphan Buri and Sa Kaeo. Meanwhile, ENF and Oxfam, a UK-based NGO, are promoting a climate change adaptation plan among farmers.
''People must focus on how to reduce carbon emissions and solve the problem of global warming,'' said Tawatchai. ''But the fact is that global warming is already happening and it might be impossible to reduce emissions. What we need to do is to adapt our life to climate change. But most people do not know how.''
Tawatchai said organic farmers in Thailand were pioneers in the region for their climate change adaptation initiatives.
''The centre's importance is that it has participation and input from local villagers. Instead of listening to authorities or repeating the same old farming methods, farmers will have more choices and make more decisions to deal with climate change and choose the appropriate method,'' said Tawatchai.
The community weather forecasting centre is only one of the planned activities to prepare farmers for climate change. There are 214 farmers in Yasothon who have joined projects such as producing and using renewable energy, managing water resources and using environmentally-friendly techniques such as organic and small-scale farming.
According to a 2009 study from the Asian Development Bank, climate change will affect Southeast Asia more significantly than other parts of the world because these countries are food and farm product exporters which are highly dependent on the weather. For example, the number of storms has decreased during the past 30 years, reducing the amount of rainwater farmers need.
Of the farmland in Thailand, 80% depends on rainwater and climate change might reduce farm yields by 15-26%.
According to National Economic and Social Development Board data from the same year, 4 billion baht of farm yields were lost to weather-related natural disasters.
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter