Monday, 12 November 2018

Developing Climate Information Products (CIPs) for Farmers: Demand-side Challenges and Necessity for an Integrated Approach

Chandrika Kularathna and Lalith Rajapaksha
Janathakshan Ltd. 

Agriculture is a key sector that stands to benefit from well-designed climate information products (CIPs). Prior knowledge about variations of weather parameters can assist in planning and making operational decisions, reducing risks, and maximising returns, while facilitating the process of adapting to climate change. Therefore, CIPs can make a significant contribution to ensure Sri Lanka’s food security in the long run, under conditions of rising climatic uncertainty.  

However, many developing countries, including Sri Lanka, still lag behind in producing and disseminating accurate and reliable CIPs for farmers. As a result, farmers still rely on their traditional knowledge when planning farming activities and making agronomic decisions. They make risky decisions, based on their own expectations about weather patterns such as rainfall. In this context, it is concerning that the reliability of farmers’ traditional knowledge has declined due to unexpected changes in local climate patterns. Thus, farmers struggle to make accurate agronomic decisions. This points to the urgent need to develop and disseminate reliable and timely CIPs to farmers and integrate scientific climate information systems to their decision making processes.

Demand-side Challenges in CIPs

Despite the growing volume of available climate information across developing regions, there are substantial gaps between the information held by CIP providers, such as national meteorological agencies, and the information demanded by users, such as farmers. While scientific advances continue to improve the coverage and the quality of observational networks and the accuracy of forecasts across time scales, there are numerous scientific and practical barriers which impact the use of climate information by agricultural communities in these regions; limitations in relevance and accuracy of CIPs, inadequate institutional capacity for timely delivery and lack of access to climate information, technical formats that cannot be understood by farmers, and disconnect between the providers and users of CIPs to name a few.

Limited Local Relevance and Accuracy of CIPs

CIPs must be locally relevant if they are to be useful in guiding decisions at the community level. The locally focused, high resolution CIPs will foster confidence and trust among farmers about the reliability and accuracy of these information products. Moreover, if the users are highly vulnerable to climate risks, the marginal benefits of using CIPs are high; even the low resolution CIPs are useful in such cases.

Providing CIPs across multiple time scales is also important. Farmers demand different types of information at different time scales in the crop calendar. CIP providers should cater to this demand through short term, medium term and long term CIPs, to enhance the usefulness of CIPs. Despite the demand, many national meteorological agencies in developing countries, lack the skill and capacity to produce location-specific CIPs across multiple time scales, in high resolution.

Issues in Timely Delivery and Access

Even though communication technologies, such as the internet, email, and mobile phones have become widely popular, the modes of disseminating CIPs still remain restricted. Many farmers live in remote areas, with limited connectivity and cannot afford communication channels. As a result, they do not have easy access to CIPs, even when locally-specific, high resolution CIPs are available. This calls for the development of innovative strategies to communicate CIPs to farmers in a timely manner.

Too Technical for Farmers

The format and the presentation of CIPs are vital to enhance their usefulness. Most CIPs, especially seasonal or medium and long-term CIPs, are in probabilistic terms. Users find these hard to comprehend and interpret. Furthermore, probabilistic weather forecasts do not contain key pieces of information, such as location of rainfall, timing and duration of rainfall, and the expected volume. Presenting CIPs in local languages used by farmers is another important consideration. On the plus side, recent Interventions to guide and train famers to improve their understanding and the ability to interpret CIPs, have shown some positive results.

Disconnection between the Providers and Users of CIPs

In many developing regions, there is a wide disconnection between CIP providers and users. Certain factors such as poor connectivity, gaps in institutional capacities, and the lack of proactive mechanisms to engage with users are responsible for this. It invariably leads to a drop in the users’ confidence and trust in available CIPs.  

The local institutional structures such as farmer organizations, which govern the collective decision-making processes among farmer communities, play a critical role in making decisions based on probabilistic CIPs. Crop cultivation choices are highly dependent on collective agreements of local governing structures and are linked to sub-national and national level decisions.

All these demand-side challenges highlight the necessity for an integrated approach to develop and promote the use of scientific CIPs among farmers. 

An Integrated Approach

A consortium of research partners, comprising of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS), the Department of Meteorology (DOM) and Janathakshan Gte Ltd. has launched a pilot-scale action research study on ‘Integrated Climate Information Management System (ICIMS)’, with selected groups of vulnerable farming communities in Sri Lanka. In this project, location specific, high resolution forecasts were issued to farmers in six Grama Niladhari divisions in six districts. The resolution of these forecasts was considerably higher than the forecasts issued by the DOM on a regular basis. The forecasts are now being issued every 10 days and updated every five days. Forecasts are presented in tailor made formats, after extensive consultations with farmers to identify their climate information needs. 

The project took several steps to eliminate the disconnection between the DOM (CIP providers) and the farmers (CIP users). Farmers were trained and made aware on how to read and interpret CIPs, how weather parameters are observed and gathered, how the CIPs were developed, and challenges in issuing high resolution CIPs at the Regional Meteorological Stations. Community managed rainfall data collection stations were established in each project location. Farmers were also given the opportunity to visit the DOM to get an idea about its role and functions.

Bridging the communication gap was the key challenge faced during the ICIMS project. Almost all the farming communities lived in rural areas, where there were no ready-made channels to disseminate the CIPs directly to farmers. Internet penetration in these locations was low, posing another hurdle. Telephone calls, faxes, and emails were the main channels used. Notice boards with CIPS were placed in the areas where the community gathers together.

Such interventions have helped farmers understand and interpret weather forecasts and minimise the disconnection between the farmers and the DOM. Farmers are now aware about the process of issuing CIPs. Their ability to interpret forecast information and make systematic observations on rainfall has increased remarkably.

Field level experience and feedback from farmers indicate high levels of acceptance and usage of CIPs. Farmers are more convinced about the usefulness and accuracy of scientific forecasts and are making decisions more confidently. 

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