How to help farmers prepare for climate change

26 September 2017 | Story Dian Spear, Chandni Singh. Photo UK Department for International Development.
Ploughing with an ox in Mozambique’s Zambezi valley.
Ploughing with an ox in Mozambique’s Zambezi valley.

Floods as well as droughts and heatwaves are increasing and will continue to do so in Africa and South Asia. Farmers and governments need to adapt to this changing climate regime. But adaptation requires decisions to be made under high uncertainty, often with incomplete knowledge. This makes planning and investing in it difficult

There is an increasing demand for short-term climate information like weather advisories. They are used most commonly to help people decide when to sow or irrigate their crops. For their part, seasonal forecasts are used for decision making by governments and NGOs, and by some farmers. But long-term information, going from seasonal forecasts to decadal climate projections, isn’t being used for planning. This includes anticipating and preventing disasters.

There is increasing evidence from across many African and South Asian countries that contextual, timely climate information, helps farmers manage the risks they face. This is particularly true when its integrated with other information such as disease outbreaks or market prices and demand. The information can guide decisions on which crops to grow, when to plant them, what seeds to use, how to market the produce, and how to divide resources between farming and other livelihoods.

But there’s less demand for long-term climate information. This is primarily because it tends to be highly uncertain and the scale of long-term climate projections tends to be too coarse. Also, policymakers find it difficult to justify investment and action based on what might happen far into the future. And there is typically a lack of institutional capacity to deal with long-term climate risks.

Other barriers to the use of climate information include: mismatches between personal or traditional beliefs and what climate information suggests, the availability of useful information at the right time, how it’s communicated and to whom, and inadequate capacity to interpret provided information.

To overcome these problems, climate information providers must develop services tailored for different needs. This requires local, national, regional and international institutions to work together. They must also work closely with vulnerable communities so that relevant climate information can be co-developed.

Notable exceptions

A number of initiatives in India and Africa illustrate the ingredients needed for the successful uptake and use of climate information. The Adaptation Learning Programme in Ghana, Niger and Kenya integrates national meteorological information with local rain data and traditional forecast knowledge. And in India, the Watershed Organisation Trust’s innovative advisories are crop specific and include nutrient, water, pest and disease management recommendations.

What makes these initiatives successful is that they:

For long term climate information to be used decision makers need to trust and understand the information. In addition, it must be tailored to the local context, fit for purpose and available in time. There must also be relevant governance and institutional structures in place and an emphasis on the socio-economic value in subsequent decision making.

Benefits of short-term actions

Short-term actions that farmers take to cope with weather can help them adapt to long-term change. When people see progress, they learn how to plan. They may change their behaviour, restructure their systems and learn from extreme events like hurricane Harvey.

  1. Behavioural shifts: For example, in Western Kenya, at the start of each rainfall season, seasonal forecast information is jointly produced by the Kenya Meteorological Services, sector experts and indigenous knowledge forecasters to help communities plan for rainfall extremes. Climate projections that demonstrate a warming trend can motivate people to start growing temperature tolerant crop varieties.

  2. Restructuring the system: For example, in India, national investments in the mid-2000s helped develop a robust system of climate information services. The system produced forecasts, trained extension staff and held field demonstrations through regional agriculture universities. These investments slowly recognised the importance of climate information to manage risk. Forecasts are improving and the private sector sees the value it gets from investing in climate information delivery. Climate information is increasingly being used in adaptation initiatives.

  3. Sudden change: high impact extreme events like Hurricane Harvey or flooding in Mumbai can motivate swift action to set up infrastructure, increase investment and build capacity. Once in place, these initiatives can lead to longer term change. For example, in India, the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999, which killed almost 10,000 people, led to better early warning systems. It changed the way people thought and behaved. When cyclone Phailin hit the Odisha coast in 2016, the death toll was drastically reduced to 45 people, with lower losses to property.

The ConversationAs climate continues to change there is an increasing need for long-term information to be incorporated into decision making. When this information is tailored to local contexts it can help people adapt.

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