Clearing the climate of confusion

Geoff Barnard

‘There is still a massive communication gap between researchers and the ultimate beneficiaries, farmers.’ Geoff Barnard, head of knowledge management at CDKN

How will climate change affect farmers in developing countries?

The indications are that very few farmers anywhere on the globe will be unaffected by climate change, but there are likely to be winners as well as losers. The latest predictions for Africa from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, show an average temperature increase of more than 3°C by the end of this century across the continent, while rainfall is predicted to increase by 7% in east Africa but decrease by 4% in southern Africa. On top of these underlying climate trends, farmers will have to deal with greater variability from season to season, and more extreme weather events, like floods and cyclones. Sea level rise adds to the pressure in coastal zones, a key issue for many small island states.

Coping with these changes will be a tall order for industrialised farmers with access to capital, insurance, modern technology and the latest scientific advice. For subsistence farmers operating on the margins, it will be an even greater challenge.

How can ICTs help farmers deal with climate change?
Communication is going to be critical in helping farmers win this battle, and it is a real advantage that cell phones are now reaching most rural communities in ACP countries. And access to the internet via smartphones is now on the horizon too. This provides communication options that were unthinkable a few years ago. It is not unrealistic to think that farmers, even in remote areas, will have access to modern online communication channels within the next decade or two.

The technology, however, is only half the problem. Having reliable, relevant and appropriately tailored information to pass through those channels is also essential. Right now, the web is awash with climate data, research reports, contradictory statements, and a fair amount of deliberate misinformation. Even trained researchers can have difficulty getting to grips with it; for a farmer looking for practical information they can trust, it is even tougher.

There are also problems with terminology and translation of key terms into indigenous languages. There is a big job to be done getting the basic concepts across, so farmers have the information they need to respond.

Can ICTs be used to help farmers access accurate weather forecasts? 
For short-term weather forecasting, SMS services are already available in some countries, and as cell phone use picks up these are likely to spread. SMS is also being used in creative ways as part of cyclone and flood alert systems, helping farmers to get their families and livestock to safety.

Longer-term weather forecasting is trickier. Having reliable forecasts for three to six months ahead would transform the picture for farmers. It would make a huge difference in helping them decide what crops to plant, whether a lower-yielding drought-resistant variety would be a better bet than a higher-yielding standard variety, for example. Cell phones would be one of the ideal ways of delivering this information. Unfortunately, the ability to provide this kind of seasonal forecast is some way off.

How does the information collected get from the major research institutes to people in rural communities?
Too often, the answer is that it doesn’t. Whether it is climate data or information on new cropping patterns, there is still a massive communication gap in many cases between researchers and the ultimate beneficiaries, farmers. The good news is that many research institutions (and, importantly, their funders) are waking up to this and putting more emphasis on communication.

Individual research institutions can only do so much, however, and I am a particular advocate of the role that intermediary organisations can play in bringing together research from different sources, summarising and repackaging it into formats that are more understandable for policy makers, extension workers, farmers and other users, and getting it to them through the appropriate channels. 

How can online information services collaborate more effectively?
In the climate sector, there are now many excellent websites out there, but this creates problems of its own – one that has been dubbed ‘portal proliferation syndrome’. With so many websites, it is hard to know where to start, and a new one seems to pop up each week. Duplication of effort is undoubtedly happening, and users are left scratching their heads.

To tackle this, a workshop was held recently in Germany for a range of people working on the subject of climate change. Staff from 21 leading global and regional climate websites got together to discuss how they could collaborate more effectively. A host of ideas emerged, including content sharing arrangements, a joint search facility, and a ‘portal of portals’ to guide users to the most relevant site.

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Geoff Barnard is head of knowledge management at the Climate and Development Knowledge Network

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29 November 2011

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