ARGOBA, Ethiopia, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Armed with a spear and undeterred by the intense sunlight, Tarekegn Kareto meticulously plucks weeds in his maize field in Argoba village, in southern Ethiopia.
"With both dry weather and unusually heavy rains hitting us in the past year, I've lost over half of my harvest of maize and sorghum," he said, pausing to wipe sweat off his forehead.
"That means I've had to dip into my crop reserves – which I can no longer sell for extra income – or even rely on neighbours' charity for food," he added.
Prolonged drought and erratic rainfall across the country have hit harvests and livestock, eating into farmers' and herders' income and meals, experts say.
In the second half of 2017, at least 8.5 million Ethiopians needed urgent food aid, up from 5.6 million in January, according to an August report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
To remedy this, a project hopes to help Ethiopian herders and farmers access weather information to make more informed decisions and better absorb climate shocks.
It has set up 25 automatic weather stations across Ethiopia's Afar, Somali, and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' (SNNP) regions, which supply weather data to relevant government agencies and local communities.
The initiative, led by aid agencies Farm Africa and Mercy Corps, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development.
The data helps herders and farmers predict the availability of water and grass for grazing, and allows government agencies to predict and track extreme weather events.
"Although Ethiopia already has automated weather stations, populations in these remote regions have little to no access to climate information," explained Dereje Agize, programme coordinator at Mercy Corps.
Tsegaye Ketema, head of developmental meteorology at Ethiopia's National Meteorological Agency, said that "with millions of Ethiopians in need of food aid due to very dry weather, access to reliable climate information can literally be a life saver".
Setting up weather stations in rural areas is part of the government's Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy, which aims to achieve self-sufficiency in food by 2025.
RELIABLE CLIMATE INFORMATION
Ethiopia is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, said Kareto, explaining that "in recent years I've witnessed several droughts during what was supposed to be rainy seasons and heavy rainfall at periods which are supposed to be dry".
That makes it difficult to know what to plant and when, he added.
Getu Guleya, chief administrator of Derashe woreda - an Ethiopian term for district - explained that "weather volatility in our area is a big challenge, even contributing to communal tensions and food insecurity".
Worsening drought has created increased competition for resources and land between ethnic groups, which can result in deadly conflict, he said.
The BRACED project aims to prevent this by providing communities with regular and reliable climate information. The Ethiopian met agency, which runs the weather stations, uses the weather data to share local information on air temperature, rainfall and wind direction – among other indicators – and produce regular climate reports.
The forecasts are then broadcast on community radios in local languages, which break down the technical terms into information that's easier to understand.
Guleya hopes that timely weather information will "reduce the need for pastoralists to migrate or raid neighbouring communities in search of food and pastures".
MANAGING LIVESTOCK BETTER
Through the radio broadcasts, the programme also encourages farmers and herders to diversify their sources of income and better manage their livestock.
Ketema believes "it is better to have a smaller flock of healthy livestock that you can rely on as a livelihood, rather than a large number of starving livestock that's hard to maintain".
"With timely climate information, you can prevent animals dying by stocking up on feed ahead of drought, for example," he said.