French development actors are relatively unaware of climate services. Yet they make a major contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to disaster risk reduction.
While climate services are well developed in France and in countries in the North, this is less the case in countries in the South. French development aid actors are still not very involved in this field, despite the fact that these climate services have a recognized impact in several sectors targeted by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is for this reason that AFD is organizing a conference-debate on 9 October 2017 to raise the awareness of French aid actors in terms of the interest of these services, which the Paris Agreement commits its signatories to develop. An interview with Philippe Roudier, “Agriculture and Climate” researcher at AFD.
What actually are climate services?
Climate services are the production and contextualization of information and knowledge derived from climate research, aiming to support decision-making at all levels of society. Weather services – which contextualize weather and not climate information – such as those provided by the Météo France weather institute, are included in what we call climate services for the sake of simplification.
These services can be classified into three categories: long-term climate projections, which study rainfall, wind, sunshine patterns, etc. in the future; short and medium-term forecasts (for the day, month or season), which allow all actors to optimize their choices; and, finally, these same short-term forecasts, but they are used to reduce disaster risks, such as with flood warnings.
Everyone, at all levels, uses climate services to manage their leisure or professional activities: from individuals who check the weather forecast before going for a walk to local authorities, which receive “heavy rainfall” warning alerts, and including engineer project managers, who need to know future rainfall patterns to correctly size their water treatment plants.
What are their applications in the sectors targeted by the SDGs?
Climate services are useful in a large number of sectors. For example, in terms of water resources management, hydro dam managers can more effectively manage water releases – and therefore hydropower generation – if they know whether or not it is going to rain in the coming days. In the agricultural sector, especially for rainfed agriculture (i.e. non-irrigated) in Africa, producers decide to spread fertilizers or select their seeds depending on the impending rainy season. They manage their cropping calendar (harvest, sowing) depending on the short-term forecasts. Climate services also have very important long-term applications in the energy sector: forecasting sunshine, wind and rainfall for the next decades helps planning for the installation of solar power plants, wind farms or dams. In addition, public actors can take long-term climate projections into account to scale their infrastructure. This is what the South African city of Cape Town now does, following an extensive reflection phase.
Finally, climate services contribute to reducing disaster risks, as they are used to anticipate, and therefore prevent or mitigate, a flood, serious drought, or even an epidemic. When we know which weather conditions are conducive to the development and spread of certain diseases, such as dengue fever, we can predict them and take preventive action.
The development of climate services is set out in the Paris Agreement. To what extent do they contribute to the fight against climate change?
Climate services allow adaptation strategies to be implemented, which strengthen the resilience of populations and territories. They help absorb shocks thanks to short-term information. Seasonal forecasts make it possible to adapt to medium-term events and changes. Finally, long-term projections give rise to transformations being made.
What is the situation in terms of the development of these services in countries in the South?
There is an increasing public will to promote access to weather and climate information in countries in the South. Public authorities fully understand the interest of these services. A number of countries are developing national plans for climate services. The objective is for the information produced by weather institutes, initially for aviation, to be widely disseminated, especially among farmers. There is also increasing demand from individuals, who want access to this information, which helps them make choices.
Are countries in the South sufficiently equipped for this?
It depends on the country. Some have a good capacity to produce information in weather institutes, but it is not sufficiently disseminated. The production of information, dissemination, and a needs analysis are three fields of climate services in which much can be done in countries in the South. It is essential for users to have better knowledge. It also has to be said that weather stations and radars are ageing, in West Africa, for example. Consequently, investments are required in infrastructure (radars, weather stations, etc.), but the information does exist and is quite reliable. The challenge for climate services lies in the dissemination of information, whatever the modes used to convey it: text messages, radio broadcasts or voice servers.
Once there is access to reliable weather and climate information, isn’t it also necessary to know how to use it?
Yes, it is. It is not only necessary to provide access to information, but also to disseminate it so that it is useful and, especially, to teach users how to understand it. It is a challenge for national services responsible for training to provide this training nationwide. Moving from the local to national level poses a real challenge.
In addition, educational work is necessary to ensure that farmers combine this information with the information from their traditional weather observation methods. Participatory workshops are a very good educational tool for this. The Red Cross Climate Center organizes participatory workshops, for example, during which participants simulate their choices over a year depending on the forecasts given to them. They thereby integrate the strengths and limitations of the decisions guided by weather forecasts and can discuss their choices. The coexistence of weather information with their traditional observation systems generally works well. One thing which is clear is that climate services should not be pitched against traditional systems. Ideally, users should also be involved in the production of information: providing them with rain gauges allows them to produce part of the information themselves and, for example, understand what 20mm of rainfall represents.
What are the limitations of climate services?
I don’t know whether they are limitations, it is more a question of challenges that need to be addressed. Studies have recently shown that climate information is generally designed for farmers who are mainly men, with a strong adaptation capacity. They are not the poorest of the poor. The question can therefore be raised as to whether this does not exacerbate inequalities, or whether the assistance given to the most affluent in the group will bring about progress for the entire group. This issue of inequalities in climate services will be studied in more detail in the context of a European research facility managed by AFD.
The issue of the economic model is also very important: are climate services intended to be free public services? There is a risk that certain services will decline after being financed by aid for a few years. In West Africa, subscription systems currently exist and they ensure the continuity of the service. In any event, reflection on their commercial model is absolutely necessary.
Finally, in terms of disaster risk reduction, information generates the alert, which is not sufficient. The alert must lead to an effective operational chain for the use of information. The Red Cross Climate Center is currently developing a forecast-based financing system for emergency operations: the triggering of the alert leads to an automatic release of funds from a donor to a field actor. In 2015, this system allowed the Uganda Red Cross to receive funds prior to the flooding in the Kampala region and to implement the security plan in the affected areas. This avoids aid arriving too late.
What are the challenges for French aid actors on this issue of climate services?
Donors and field actors need to be aware of the various potential applications of these climate services and of their importance for the achievement of the SDGs. Quantification studies on the value of climate services estimate that having weather information for the next 10 days and information on the rainfall trend for the season would allow farmers in Niger to increase their incomes by up to 15%. This is quite significant in terms of poverty reduction. AFD is taking a strong interest in the development of climate services: the agency follows the activities of the Africa Hydromet program and launches several research studies on Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. AFD is also supporting African Risk Capacity, a specialized agency of the African Union, which helps member States improve their capacities to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and to develop innovative climate insurance projects at the country level.
One of the major challenges for research actors such as CIRAD or IRD, and for the main climate modelling centers, is the development of climate information portals, especially online, tailored to the needs and knowledge of users. Whether it is to know how to represent information depending on the populations it is intended for, or to develop single portals and avoid the dispersal of information, there are huge research opportunities.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.