In search of water, a Thari villager climbs down into a dried up well to dig deeper - AFP file photo
In search of water, a Thari villager climbs down into a dried up well to dig deeper - AFP file photo

In March, as the crow breeding season begins, fisherfolk of the Indus Delta get busy counting their eggs.

“If the crows lay more than three eggs, the monsoons will bring good rains,” explains 50-year-old social activist Shafi Murgher from a small town of the delta in district Thatta. “But if they lay seven eggs, it means torrential rains will bring flash floods and devastation.”

These aren’t any arbitrary rules of weather forecasting; this is indigenous Sindhi folk wisdom passed down from generation to generation, and derived from the surrounding environment of any particular area. In its details, therefore, this unique indigenous forecasting system differs from region to region.

With lives dependent on weather changes, this system of weather forecasting helps rural folk and serves as a code of life. It helps people prepare for disasters, decide whether to migrate, tell if it’s time to till the land in preparation for rainfall, whether it’s safe to go fishing into the open seas, or simply which crop to grow.

No fancy gadgets, no satellite systems ... these are techniques passed down through generations in Sindh’s indigenous communities to predict the weather on which so much depends

The indigenous weather forecasting system defies convention: while it is usually believed that there are only four seasons in a year and each season comprises three months, rural communities in Sindh divide the year into six seasons, with each season comprising two months. This division makes predicting weather “easy” for them.

Forecasts are based on certain changes in the wind direction and clouds; alterations in the sea, special occurrences in the moon, the sun or stars; as well as the movements or behavioural changes of birds, insects, wild animals, pets, livestock, reptiles and amphibians. Plant phenology is also employed to forecast weather.

In many parts of rural Sindh, fisherfolk, farmers, herders, masons and even potters do not trust the weather forecast advisory issued by public departments through the media. Their belief and reliance in this old system is near absolute: daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal forecasting for routine and special activities all revolve around this ancestral system.

“The Arabian Sea has different colours,” says Murgher, “and sometimes, it changes colour to light black. That indicates something bad in the sea. If fisherfolk in Thatta and Badin find lots of fish or cetaceans in the creeks of the Indus, they prefer not to go on long-haul fishing trips as they feel that bad weather or a storm is brewing in the sea. When they are in the open seas, they can estimate the onset of turbulent weather or storms around 24 hours earlier.”

Sindh has seven major climatic regions: Thar Desert, Achhro Thar or White Desert, Nara Desert, Kachho, Kohistan, Laar or southern Sindh, and Wicholo or middle Sindh that is part of Indus eco-region. Except Wicholo and some portions of Laar, most of these regions are arid or semi-arid, and also completely dependent on rain.

Despite being able to predict all types of weather, rural communities’ primary expertise became rain forecasting since their immediate surroundings and fortunes were dependant on rainfall.

“Earthquakes aren’t frequent and communities have not witnessed any major earthquake in the recent past, neither in Thar nor in other parts of the province. Earthquakes weren’t their concern, and therefore, indigenous knowledge to predict earthquakes could not be built,” explains Bharumal Amrani, a social activist from Tharparkar district.

Similar is the case with coastal communities: nobody seems to have found signs in nature to predict the occurrence of a tsunami.

Costs incurred on preparing the land and buying agriculture inputs are high — if the weather forecast goes wrong, these poor communities have to pay huge sums to recover. If and when drought hits the region, the costs to survive will only swell.

“Our forefathers told us that only once in reported history has a tsunami hit Sindh’s coastal areas. But since that is not happening often, communities didn’t create any skills for that purpose,” says Murgher.

And yet, as Murgher explains, the people of Laar consider wind as a strong tool in matters of weather prediction.

In the months of June, July and August, if the southerly wind becomes hot, this means a storm or cyclone will emerge in the next few hours. But if there is torrential monsoon rain and suddenly the southerly wind starts, this means that rainfall will stop in the next one hour.

Quoting a local proverb about the importance of wind in indigenous weather forecasting, Murgher says: “The wisdom is Kara kakar, thadra waa, dhor wikani khao [If there are black cloud and cold winds, sell your livestock and buy food]. Before the monsoons, whenever there is a south westerly wind, villagers know that there will be no rain in the coming season and drought is imminent.”

Far removed from the coastal areas, Aachar Bheel, an elderly resident of a remote village in Thar, is nearly certain that there will be abundant rains in the coming season — enough to end the ongoing drought in the desert.

“Right after spring, when summer starts with hot days and there is plenty of Singar, the fruit of Kandi tree, and also if in this season there is plenty of fruit in the wild Peelu tree and the wild flower blooms in this season, this means more rain in the coming monsoon,” explains Bheel.

In places like Thar and for men like Bheel, indigenous weather forecasts allow them to gather information about the coming season earlier so that they can prepare their fields for rain. Costs incurred on preparing the land and buying agriculture inputs are high — if the weather forecast goes wrong, these poor communities have to pay huge sums to recover. If and when drought hits the region, the costs to survive will only swell.

In very real terms, getting a forecast wrong is a matter of life and death.

“When Tharis find entire colonies of ants leave home and queue to move to a safer place, they know that rain is coming in the next two days,” explains Amrani. “If a cow has dust on its back and while walking it stops and tilts its head towards the sky, it means that it will rain in the next 24 hours.”

Then there is the unusual sight of local snakes climbing trees (which they normally don’t); this too is a way of forecasting rain. The same is the case with big carpenter ants, when they come out of their colonies and start climbing trees.

In Thar, when someone witnesses house sparrows bathing in sand, they will be certain that there will be rain in the next three days. In late May, when locals find peafowls suddenly losing their trains, this too means that rain is around the corner.

Morning dew is also another indicator: early morning dew means no rainfall in the next 24 hours. In February and March, if morning dew continues to fall for many days, there will be no rainfall in the next season and the area will witness drought. In the month of May, if water kept in an earthen pot becomes hot, that means there will be good rain in next monsoon.

Villagers also keep an eye on the formation of clouds in late June or early July. If they find thin cirrus (bird feather-like white clouds), they know that there will be heavy rains after 10 to 15 days. The same clouds but with a heavier density means torrential rains in the next three or four days.

If the moon is surrounded by light clouds, it is likely to drizzle in the next few days or receive some light rain. But this rainfall will continue for many days.

During the monsoons, the appearance of a green grasshopper means a healthy crop. But if locals see a termite, they take it to mean that there will be a good harvest but food shortage will still take place. Also in the same season, if there is light rain which is then followed by lots of dragonflies, this means that the village needs to prepare for lots of mosquitoes in the coming days and also that light rain or drizzling will continue for the next few days.

“When stray dogs start howling like jackals at night, this means an epidemic or some other disaster is approaching towards the village,” says Amrani. “But in winter, when stray dogs start mating, locals understand that to mean an intense cold wave will hit the area.”

Many residents of Thar, Acchro Thar and Laar also believe that during the monsoon season, even if there are no clues about rain but if frogs suddenly start croaking at night, there will be rainfall in the next 24 hours. The more the frogs croak, the more rain is expected.

Besides plant phenology and movements of animals and insects, rural communities also watch the movements of celestial objects (the sun, moon and stars) for weather forecasting. For people of the Thar Desert, White Desert and Laar area of Sindh, a clear halo around the moon or sun means that there will be rain in the next few days. If the halo is filled with some clouds, it means a dust storm before rain.

Here, locals also consult Hindu pundits about weather forecasting. These pundits, with the help of Hindu astrology books, check different Nakhstras or stars, including Rohini, Mrigashir, Magha, Purva Phalguni, Uttara Phalguni etc. They then predict the weather on the basis of the birth of these stars at certain times, their position, and the symbol of the animals which these stars ride with during the year.

Maharaj Nihalchand Giyanchandani, eminent Hindu pundit from Sanghar district, is said to be an expert of these celestial predictions. “This year, there won’t be the same rain in all regions; in some areas, it will be more and in others, none at all. There are also possibilities of a disaster coming from the sea; it can be a cyclone, storm or something else but it will hit the coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan,” says Giyanchandani in an interview over telephone.

Amar Guriro is a Karachi-based environmental journalist. He tweets @AmarGuriro

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 24th, 2015

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