Local early warning systems: predicting the future when things are so uncertain

by Tahira Mohamed and Ian Scoones

There have been huge investments in ‘early warning’ facilities across East Africa, prompted by previous emergencies where livestock have perished and people’s lives have been threatened. The most recent of these was the drought that struck the Somali region in 2011-12, but affected parts of northern Kenya seriously too. Predicting droughts and communicating the predictions in terms of risk reports and early warning bulletins is now standard practice. Yet, despite all the talk of early warning, disaster risk reduction, shock-responsive systems, contingency planning and anticipatory action, the end results are mixed to say the least.

In Kenya, the impressive National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), a government outfit based in 23 Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) counties, was established in 2011 with significant donor support. It produces monthly bulletins stacked with information derived from earth observations from satellites as well as surveys of key vulnerability indicators (household food consumption, market prices for livestock, food, water, livestock body condition, vegetation status etc.) collected across each region. These bulletins are shared with the county government and the array of NGOs working in each area, as well as local communities.

Despite the deluge of high-quality information, the gap between early warning (which is increasingly accurate, at least for the short-term) and action on the ground is huge. This has been a perennial problem. There are issues of trust (why should I believe the government?), inertia (surely if I wait a bit, then things will be better) and communication styles (a dozen pages in English rather than vernacular and visual versions, although this is apparently going to change).

As one frustrated NDMA officer observed, “With early warnings, you are telling them what they already see. We are ambassadors for what they already know!” Those working on the ground know that there’s a drought right now (livestock are dying in numbers, and there’s no grass and water), so they don’t need information that the situation is dire.

Signboard detailing the work of the early warning and response unit

Deliberating on uncertainties: the need for local debate

The big problem with such information systems is that they are usually one-way: we have the information; you should listen and act. There’s no space for dialogue, deliberation and debate. There are always uncertainties: Does this really apply here? Why wasn’t the drought predicted correctly last time? Is this information relevant to me right now? The assumption of specialised expertise filling a ‘deficit’ in local knowledge and understanding has long been seen to be misplaced in debates about science-policy interactions, and it applies as much to early warning and drought alert information in pastoral drylands.

This gap was recognised by a number of agencies that came together to design the Community-Managed Disaster Risk Reduction (CMDRR) approach based on a participatory diagnosis of problems and joint construction of solutions. While the CMDRR committees are aimed to produce development and contingency plans that can then articulate with funding programmes from government and NGOs, the most important part of these committees is the process.

Meeting monthly and composed of a group of locally-selected ‘experts’, they draw on local experience and knowledge and discuss impending or unfolding crises. This may be drought, but also conflict, animal disease or other challenges facing them, right there in their own context. This deliberation is crucial as diverse views are shared, dispute and contestation is possible, and in this ways, uncertainties (for they are always there) are addressed.

For example, in one village some way off the main road near Moyale, we met the chair of the committee who explained its functioning. There are 23 members, 15 men and 8 women. The roles are voluntary, although they have been supported, now over nine years, by a local NGO. As well as including elders with long, historical experience of past crises and how these were addressed, the membership includes a number of people with specialist expertise.

Amongst these local experts is a man who is an expert in treating sick and injured animals (specialised in local techniques for bone setting). His knowledge is sought by community members when animals become sick in ‘normal’ times, but when a particular disease spreads dramatically, he is a crucial point of contact. With veterinary officers few and far between, he must link with those selling drugs but also those with knowledge (as he has) of traditional herbs and treatments. The local ‘disease reporters’ pass information upwards to their superiors; their local knowledge is also crucial in understanding disease at a local level. Connecting these networks is crucial in responding to a crisis, as described for North Horr and also in Marsabit county, and the CMDRR is a vital platform for integrating this knowledge and sharing it.

Local experts in conversation with the author

Local early warning: the role of community-based prediction and response

In addition to expertise in particular facets of crisis response, there are others who act as the local early warning system. In this area, they claim that they never make use of the NDMA bulletins but have their own system. It is perhaps not surprising: there is no phone network in the village, and they are not helped with data bundles to download the documents with all their graphs and tables. Instead, they make use of locals who are experts in predicting droughts and other crises.

Two such experts are members of the committee. One woman has recently inherited the role of ‘Uchu’ from her mother, who was an expert reader of animals’ intestines. Her mother was renowned throughout the area as someone who can accurately predict what will happen by inspecting the intestines of a recently slaughtered goat, cow or bull. They have to be animals who have been born and raised in the area and, ideally, are young calves or kids. Usually, the intestines of animals slaughtered for weddings, funerals or naming ceremonies are by such experts. If the signs are unclear, the process is repeated with a newly slaughtered animal of the right type. Those who read the signs are offered a portion of the liver, which is fried. Once eaten, the predictions are made, and people discuss. Sometimes there are conflicting versions from different people, and further deliberations have to be made. Even in the indigenous science of prediction from intestines, there are uncertainties.  

Although intestine readers can divine the future across a range of hazards, there are also others who may be referred to. Some throw shoes to see what the future might bring, while others look at the stars. These indigenous astronomers are especially well regarded. In the same village where we conducted our interviews, an interpreter of the patterns of the stars is also present. And when differences of opinion arise between different predictors, they consult and discuss. People view the local astronomer as especially good at predicting future climate events, usually over a longer period than those who read the intestines.

Predictions, of course, only happen at a certain point of time, and in relation to a certain set of questions that community members pose. But droughts, conflicts, disease outbreaks and so on unfold over time in uncertain ways. This is why predictions must be repeated, and adaptations and responses to these must be continuous, part of a process. Combining multiple knowledges is essential, along with discussions around uncertainties.

Closing the early warning gap: processes of local deliberation around uncertainties

The problem with the centralised early warning systems and the whole paraphernalia of reporting that follows is that they too often do not reach the ‘last mile’ – the communities that are affected. This is where early warning’s ‘missing link’ has long been identified. Often distrusted and seen as alien to local contextual knowledge, recommendations are frequently rejected.

This is why the NDMA in Moyale at least has, at the encouragement of a local NGO, started to work with local early warning specialists in workshops where external, ‘scientific’ information is shared at the local level and debated alongside the local interpretations and predictions. In Moyale sub-county, the NDMA has invited traditional forecasters from across the region, including different ethnic groups. At a workshop, they slaughter a goat and each individual inspects the intestines. When all have completed their inspections, they share the results and compare these with the ICPAC and Meteorological Department forecasts.

As the local NDMA officer explained, although there was debate about the specifics, there was remarkable convergence between the different views. Building trust with local communities through using local knowledge in tandem with external, ‘scientific’ sources is seen as an important route to communication, with community radio programmes planned where the results can be discussed.

Yet, the huge investments in early warning systems using the best satellite technologies and highly sophisticated interpretation techniques often assume a linear transformation of information, from those who know to those who don’t. But this forgets that local pastoralists are well practised in predicting and responding to drought. The fancy technological solutions in the end are no match to the local deliberation on the ground about uncertain futures using multiple sources of knowledge.

No-one expects these predictions to be correct all of the time – whether local or external – but it’s the deliberation around uncertainties that ensues following a prediction that is important in shaping local responses. Effective responses always have to be embedded in local contexts, drawing on local knowledges and social relations, and this is why too often external interventions around ‘resilience’ fail and why alternatives are needed, as we discuss in the next and final blog in this series.

This is the second of a series of three blogs written as part of a scoping study and supported by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). See the first blog here. A version of this blog has been published in The Elephant, https://www.theelephant.info/features/2023/04/14/local-knowledge-is-crucial-for-crisis-preparedness/

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