Waterapps can forecast cyclones seven days in advance. Photo: Shutterstock
Farmers in Ghana and Bangladesh now have a better idea of when to start sowing or when to get ready for a cyclone thanks to Professor Fulco Ludwig. He and his team at WIMEK have developed a long-term weather forecasting app. Breweries and travel companies can benefit from it too.
“It’s a fascinating problem that combines the development of fundamental knowledge and its application.” In a nutshell that, according to Water & Climate Change professor Fulco Ludwig, is what motivates him in his research at the Wageningen Institute for Environmental and Climate Research (WIMEK). Ludwig wants to know how he can inform people about climate change in such a way that it leads to action by the people directly affected. His previous experience with large-scale projects on the consequences of climate change had taught him that policymakers in the Netherlands and the EU found the results interesting but no more than that, and therefore nothing got done.
So the professor started to focus more on research where the results help people to adapt to the changing conditions. He calls this approach ‘climate information services’, in which people are kept informed about the consequences of climate change for specific sectors. A good example is Waterapps, an advanced version of a weather forecasting app that is used by farmers in Bangladesh and Ghana. Climate change is making the weather increasingly unpredictable in these countries. They might have far too much rain one moment, and then face weeks of drought. That is bad news for farmers because they base their decisions on the weather (what is the right time to sow their seed and when should they apply fertilizer?). The sooner they know what weather to expect, the better they can prepare for it.
Incorporating indigenous knowledge in the weather forecasts lets us increase farmers’ confidence in our app
Local farmers in Bangladesh time their sowing and harvesting based on the weather, which is becoming increasingly unpredictable due to climate change. Photo: Shutterstock
The problem is that their local weather institutes mainly focus on the short term. The weather services there are set up to serve the aviation industry, which only needs to know the weather one day in advance. Farmers on the other hand need longer-term forecasts. After all, you only want to sow your seed if you can be sure it will rain a few days later, as the seed will otherwise die. But if you are applying fertilizer or pesticides, you need to be certain it won’t rain as that would wash away the active ingredients. Reliable forecasts let farmers make effective use of their raw materials and avoid unnecessary costs.
Ducks and insects
But an app alone is not enough. Communicating the weather forecasts effectively is also incredibly important. Whereas the Dutch meteorological institute KNMI is trusted intrinsically, some farmers in Ghana and Bangladesh suspect the government of deliberately misinforming them, or they simply believe the forecasts are wrong. Ludwig: “Whereas those services aren’t actually any less reliable than our KNMI. Their 24-hour forecasts are pretty good.”
That is why Ludwig’s team used a two-pronged approach. The first element was to get agricultural attachés — local agricultural extension workers employed by the government to help farmers — involved in the project. They are trusted by the farmers so if they recommend Waterapps, it is likely to be accepted. Secondly, Ludwig’s team used input from the farmers in developing the app, its interface and the associated communication. “Because people will also trust something if you share responsibility for the development with them.”
Bangladeshi locals get acquainted with Waterapps in Farmers Weather Schools. Photos: Uthpal Kumar
For example, the farmers were invited to make their own daily forecasts for the weather, giving their reasons. “A key aspect of this research was to integrate indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge about weather predictions. If it is about to rain, for instance, the farmers see particular insects or ducks appear. There are also certain types of clouds or changes in the air pressure that indicate this, along with the appearance of the sun and moon. At first I didn’t believe them, but we were able to find scientific explanations for some of their indicators. And incorporating such elements in the weather forecasts let us increase the farmers’ confidence in our app.”
The farmers were also given rain gauges. That let them see for themselves whether their forecasts were correct and made them more aware of how difficult it is to predict something as variable as rainfall. “The farmers told one another about their forecasts in Facebook and WhatsApp groups, while we did the daily scientific forecasts. At the end of the day, you could see what everyone had predicted. That sparked off lots of discussions, which was a valuable process for everyone. We were also then able to analyse those online discussions, which would normally have taken place informally under a tree, so that was a major advantage for us.”
We saw a cyclone was approaching seven days in advance, which gave the farmers time to prepare for it
One obstacle they encountered was how to teach farmers to deal with longer-term forecasts, given that this is ‘only’ ever a prediction and not guaranteed to come true. “An app alone won’t work; you always need training as well. Farmers need to learn how to make decisions based on that information and to understand the uncertainties.” At first, the Bangladeshi farmers found the app and its percentages too complicated. “They couldn’t see what actions they needed to take. So we put on training courses and used colour codes to indicate the reliability.”
My aim isn’t to persuade policymakers. I want people to be able to take action
Farmers in Ghana always look forward to rain as their agricultural land is incredibly dry. Photo: Shutterstock
But Waterapps is more than just a sophisticated weather forecasting app. Cyclones are a big problem in Bangladesh. In 1973, a huge cyclone killed hundreds of thousands of people. This led to the introduction of an early warning system, which functions well. “But it is aimed at saving human lives. It only warns people of an imminent cyclone three days in advance, which is enough time to evacuate people. But our model shows a cyclone is approaching seven days in advance. That gives farmers time to make all kinds of preparations, such as reinforcing their sheds, bringing in the harvest, collecting food for their animals and pruning trees to prevent their homes from being destroyed by falling branches.” The trust the researchers had already gained played a crucial role, according to Ludwig. “Normally the farmers wouldn’t have believed our predictions but we had just been through a whole trust-building exercise. The farmers were able to prevent huge losses and avoid big costs because they took action based on our forecasts.”
The great challenge now is making sure the app continues to be used, preferably by more and more farmers, along with the associated training through the local weather schools. Ludwig’s team therefore wants to put together training packs for the agricultural attachés to increase their knowledge about the climate, which they can then pass on. “We also want to connect the agricultural attachés to the local weather forecasting institutes: what do farmers need and how can the institute meet those needs?” In addition, they are looking at partnerships with governmental authorities or farming cooperatives who can take responsibility for the roll-out.
Bangladesh is on the front line of climate change. In coastal communities, where agricultural land is limited, the food production system is put under intense pressure as a result of temperature rises, fresh water shortages and intense storm damage. Longer-term weather forecasts allow farmers to anticipate and even save harvests.
Building the models and apps and organizing the training all costs money, so Ludwig and his colleagues are also looking at possible business models. One option is a mobile subscription with a premium package that contains the app. Vodafone is interested, partly to create goodwill and partly as a way of recruiting and retaining customers in these countries. Experiments are also being done with a paid subscription and ads in the app.
From Heineken to Transavia
But farms are not the only potential beneficiaries of climate information services. Water boards in the Netherlands would have a better idea of whether they need to deliver groundwater to farmers if they knew exactly when to expect rain again. Tourism would also benefit from such services. “If Transavia knows it’s going to be good weather in Greece and starts flights there a little earlier than the competition, that can be highly profitable.” The Heineken brewing company is interested as well as it needs a great deal of water for its raw materials and processes. Reliable climate predictions will help the company decide where to set up its factories.
And what about the policymakers? Have they changed their tune now? “Policymakers are seeing that it works”, concludes Ludwig cautiously. “The European Union is investing in climate information services, as is the World Bank. They realize this is a good way to help farmers. But my aim isn’t to persuade policymakers: I want people to be able to take action.”
Read more about the Climate Information Services
Read more about the research of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK)
Check out the Waterapps website
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