Thursday, 9 August 2018

Climate Information Needs of Farmers: What is in Demand?

Anita Perera and Geethika Maddumage

As a developing country that still depends heavily on agriculture for rural livelihoods, Sri Lanka faces many challenges due to climatic changes. Without reliable climate-related information, farmers are unable to make accurate farming decisions. In the past, farmers were able to rely on their traditional knowledge to make precise weather predictions. They were well-versed on local weather patterns and the specific climatic requirements for crops, thanks to long-term experience and knowledge passed through generations. 

A farmer from Kotawehera, Kurunegala district explains,we used to start cultivating after observing signs in the local environment and using them to predict the weather. We did not listen to weather forecasts on the radio or TV; most of the time it is not as trustworthy as our traditional weather forecasting.”

However, with drastic changes in global climate patterns and local environments, familiar signs that provided clues about weather changes have become less reliable. Therefore, farmers find it difficult to adjust to agronomic practices, according to the rapidly changing climatic patterns.

“In the past, we could identify and predict weather changes in advance by observing animal behaviour and changes in our local environment, but now, some animals are hardly seen, and climate has become unpredictable,” complains a farmer from Anda Ulpotha, Badulla district.

As such, farmers are gradually losing trust in their traditional climatic knowledge. Thus, it is important to identify farmers’ climatic information needs correctly and fill the information gaps created due to declining reliability of traditional climate knowledge. As a solution, they should be provided with timely, scientific weather forecasts to better predict and prepare for imminent changes.

To address this climate information gap, the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) teamed up with Department of Meteorology of Sri Lanka (DOM), and Janathakshan Gte. Ltd to pilot test an Integrated Climate Information Management System (ICIMS), with selected farmers from Padaviya (Anuradhapura district), Wakare (Batticaloa district), Anda Ulpotha  (Badulla district), Bundala (Hambanthota district), Kotawehera (Kurunegala district), and Opanayake (Rathnapura district). A key feature of the ICIMS model is that it attempts to harness and integrate the strengths of both scientific weather forecasting products and farmers’ local experience and knowledge to the decision-making processes. The study is funded by the Opportunity Fund of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. The South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE) supports the project by sharing regional experiences.

Climatic Information Needs of Farmers

Climate information plays a significant role in daily management decisions, as well as in the long-term development of climate-smart technologies. Providing timely information on weather trends helps farmers make accurate decisions in terms of planning seasons (Kanna salasuma) and other agronomic practices. An Irrigation Officer from Padaviya explains, when planning a season we want a wide range of climatic information for the short term, medium term, and long term. In major irrigation schemes, we use the previous years’ data and the environmental signals for the planning. Padaviya is an area covered by a major irrigation scheme. If we can get this information for the whole area, then we can apply it when making decisions.

Meanwhile, a farmer from Padaviya explains, “if we get information about the rain early, we can adjust practices accordingly. If it starts to rain in the harvesting and post harvesting time, it destroys our harvest.”

“It is helpful to have information when applying fertiliser and starting to harvest,” notes a farmer from Opanayaka.  

Farmers also emphasised the importance of providing correct information in a timely manner. A farmer from Kotawehera says, if we can get the information about rain before the season starts, then we can discuss in the farmer organisations and come to a decision."

A farmer from Opanayaka mentions that it would be ideal if they can get updates every five to ten days, highlighting the importance of continuous climatic information.

In critical climatic conditions, farmers make adjustments to farming activities and need continuous,  seasonal forecasts to make their decisions. The President of the Farmer Organisation of Opanayake, elaborating, says, Opanayaka-Dandeniya is a rain fed agricultural area. Because rain is scarce, only 25 farmers can farm during this season. We use the traditional variety of “Hatada vee” (a variety maturing in 60 days). As rain-fed farmers, continuous and seasonal climatic information is valuable for us.

Even though farmers still depend on their traditional knowledge for climate predictions to a certain degree, they recognise the limitations of local predictions under changing climatic conditions and the need for bridging the resultant information gap through scientific climate information products. They highlight the limitations of currently available low-resolution forecasts, which cover entire districts, rather than specific local areas. Farmers’ climate information needs are specific and time-bound. They need information to make decisions at specific stages in crop cultivation, and to make adjustments to practices according to prevailing and anticipated climate conditions.

Demand for Climate Information

The demand for climate information originates from farmers’ perceptions about climate risks. A survey to assess farmers’ perceptions of climate risks and the demand for climate information, based on interviews with 900 farmers from six areas (150 each from a district), showed that, 558 (62 %) rank climate change under the high risk category. Moreover, 481(53%) of respondents recognise that water supply risk can hamper their farming activities in respective areas. Comparatively, fewer farmers rank pest and diseases, price shocks, and animal attacks under the high risk category. While respondents come from locations selected for high vulnerability to climate change and therefore these rankings cannot be generalised to all farmers in Sri Lanka, it suggests however, that the majority of vulnerable farmers recognise the threat of climate change and the associated risk of water supply as major risks.

The farmers were asked about their information requirements for three time horizons— short-term, medium-term, and long-term -- as well as climate information requirements with respect to different agronomic practices from land preparation to post harvesting stage.

For all time horizons, rainfall is the most critical climatic parameter, demanded by approximately 70% of respondents. Onset of rainfall is the most important climatic information needed for almost all agronomic practices in all three time horizons, followed by the duration of rainfall. As the rainfall has a significant impact on planning seasons and other agronomic practices, the survey proves that the farmers’ main concern is having accurate dates and the duration of rainfall, to prepare themselves effectively.

A significant share of respondents also indicate the importance of daily temperature readings for harvesting, post harvesting, and crop management. As they have correctly indicated, temperature-related information is important to reduce unwanted losses in post-harvest practices.


Farmers in vulnerable localities recognise climate change and the associated risk of water supply as the most critical risks among other threats. Declining trust over local climate predictions and the rising risk of climate change create a demand for scientific climate information products. To fulfill this demand, it is necessary to identify farmers’ climate information needs correctly. Farmers’ feedback gathered in Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) and a survey indicate that attention should be focused on three major dimensions; namely, time of information availability, weather parameters for which information is necessary, and agronomic practices for which information is necessary. Information needs in terms of different weather parameters are interconnected with different agronomic practices. Onsets of rain and rainfall duration are the parameters that are in highest demand by farmers when making decisions on all agronomic practices. When developing scientific climate information products to fill the emerging void created by declining reliability of local climate knowledge, due consideration should be given to address the above aspects of climate information needs.  

(Anita Perera and Geethika Maddumage are Project Officers at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). 

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