Flood resilience and accurate data

Theme: Water

Erratic weather patterns, a generally accepted indicator of climate change, have a major impact on the water supply in communities. Extreme weather — intense rainfalls, drought, or simply untimely rains — has a serious impact on the availability of safe and clean water, soil degradation and erosion, and ultimately agricultural production, nutrition and health.

In the United States and other developed nations, it’s taken for granted that government bodies can and will provide fairly accurate predictions of rain and other upcoming weather. This information is so ubiquitous in U.S. farming communities that it’s easy to forget how remarkable it actually is. Tracking and accurately predicting weather activities requires significant scientific capacity. Integrating it into agricultural production requires a high level of social organization, including ongoing cooperation between public and private entities.

All of this is often lacking in developing countries. This puts small island nations such as East Timor, which rely on groundwater to compensate for freshwater shortages, at particular risk of food insecurity caused by erratic weather patterns. A two-year assessment by the Australian government on the impact of climate change on groundwater in East Timor identified higher temperatures, rising sea levels, erratic rainfall and drought as affecting both the quality and quantity of groundwater.

In a study by the United Nations in 2013, the findings concluded that climate change in East Timor could lead to decreases in agricultural yield and potentially severe decreases in soil water content. This, in turn, threatens the quantity and quality of key crops including corn, central to the diets of East Timor’s citizens.

There are a number of ways to build East Timor’s resilience to climate change and mitigate and prevent decreased agricultural output and quality.

One of them is through timely and accurate rainfall information to help guide agricultural production. For example, World Neighbors has worked with partners such as the Bandung Institute of Technology to build this capacity in a number of districts in eastern Indonesia. Rainfall assessments are created through cross-referencing historical rainfall data; agricultural land areas, size and topography data, and the types of crops grown; satellite imagery, as well as local field data on recent rainfall trends, seasonal cropping calendars, and what grew well when/where, etc.

An essential part of these assessments comes from local data, based directly on indigenous knowledge. This data is collected directly by local partners through participatory methods to ensure communities have as much buy-in as possible from the very beginning. By ensuring that the actual assessment and recommendations are based on their own information, this dramatically reduces farmers’ resistance to the change in cropping patterns that they are being advised to make.

Following the dissemination of the assessment results at the village level, farmers agree upon action plans whereby, either individually or in a collective, they commit to growing a number of different crops on part of their farmland, the size of which is entirely their decision. The crop patterns are designed to minimize water usage and maximize output.

That’s a critical part of any sustainable project to build resilience to climate change. Yes, climate change and erratic weather is a real threat. But addressing it is also an opportunity to learn and adopt innovations that reduce inputs — including water — and increase output. Building resilience to climate change is an important way to share sustainable agricultural techniques with communities that would benefit from the relatively quick and inexpensive methods proven to increase output and profit.

Over the last two years, World Neighbors has trained over 4,000 Indonesian farmers in the changes on rainfall patterns and the cultivation of more adaptive local food crops (rather than the staple crops of rice and corn). Training materials include a calendar of rainfall from month to month; identifying the types of potential food crops that match with the soil conditions and rainfall; technical cultivation of local crops, and building a movement of support for local food through demonstrating to the communities that they are high in nutritional value. Thousands of these farmers have already planted local food crops on farmland totaling over 850 hectares. Even this year, which saw a very powerful El Nino, the crop yield has been good.

World Neighbors and ITB are now looking at ways to bring this rainfall prediction technology to East Timor, which will also help Timorese farmers determine the type of crops and planting patterns suitable with the island’s changing rainfall patterns. The government can also use the information to help guide its capacity building work to enhance overall disaster preparedness and response, as the data can be used to guide more appropriate agriculture and infrastructure development plans as well as better predict floods, landslides, droughts, pests and livestock diseases.

It is no doubt one of the great injustices of our time that small communities around the world must adapt to the erratic weather patterns caused by the fossil fuel driven development of a relative handful of nations. But those nations can continue to invest to share the “better angels” of that development, including processes to gather data about the natural world. When these methods are implemented with and through local communities, they are an important contributor to not only increasing climate resilience, but the food security that is the basis of sustainable development.