World Resource Institute

The RANET Project: Climate Information Collection in Zambia

By Riedner Mumbi, RANET Zambia Project Coordinator

Question Five: How can information for adaptation decision making be collected and disseminated so as to advance integration of climate risks into plans and policies and be useful for those who need it most?

Drawing on an information collection project in Zambia, this paper looks at how rural communities can be involved in collecting and disseminating timely and accurate climate information.  While collecting climate data over a wide area can be costly, the RANET project has successfully collected rainfall data by providing rainfall gauges to rural community members. Disseminating this data in a timely manner to rural communities is being done through mobile phones and community radio broadcasting.

Radio broadcasting is the most cost effective and cheapest way of information dissemination and education.

Studies have shown that the impacts resulting from climate change and in society’s vulnerability have already manifested themselves in many ways. Social, economic and environmental losses associated with an exposed and thus vulnerable society are mounting and threatening both our sustainability and potential for further development.

The livelihoods of most people, particularly in developing countries like Zambia, are critically dependent on weather and climate. Single extreme events in developing countries, can cause serious loss of life, economic setbacks equivalent to a couple of years or decade’s worth of economic development. Take, for example, the Mozambique floods in 2000, which led the Mozambique government to make an international appeal for over US$ 65m assistance in order to cope with the impacts.  

Examples such as this illustrate how development and poverty reduction are often being prevented as a result of climatic extremes and variability. In developing countries   agricultural production is dependent on weather because the majority of farmers are peasant farmers who depend solely on rain for their crop production. Droughts and excessive rains adversely impact the food production and lives of society.  If the Mozambican government, however, had had adequate information about the impending disaster it would have prepared itself and the effects would have been minimized.

Humankind has already started to look for and apply adaptation methods to survive.

But adaptation requires timely and fairly accurate advance information. This is what makes such information a perishable commodity, because it has to be available for application in ample time and properly packaged for society to make good use of it. 

Collection of Information

Basically weather and climate information are obtained by taking earth and sea surface information about temperatures, relative humidity and pressure as well as those of the atmosphere and the lower stratosphere.

In order to take measurements of weather and climate variables we need to have both surface and space based instruments as well as remote sensing, state of the art instrumentation. We also need a good network of such instruments in order for the data obtained to be well representative of the area under consideration. Whether this information is gathered in developed or developing countries, the cost is the same. In most cases we also need highly trained personnel to take measurements of the earth, sea and atmospheric environment, and these are not cheap to train. Planning and policy makers, especially in developing countries, should therefore give serious consideration in their budgets to including climate monitoring as a priority.

The Zambia Meteorological Department, through its RANET Project, has in the last four years involved rural community members in collecting climate information. The project provided some 3050 community members in remote rural areas with rain gauges to take rainfall measurements.

So far the results are encouraging and the project is now considering providing automatic weather stations to rural farmer cooperatives across the country. All that is required is training for office bearers of the cooperative, every two years.  Such training is simple since everything is shown on the display of the automatic weather station. To motivate these voluntary climate observers, they are invited to attend seasonal rainfall forecasts and seasonal rainfall reviews by the Zambia Meteorological Department. If funds allow in future, a small allowance would be an added incentive.

Dissemination of Information

In addition to the observing equipment, we need good communication equipment to enable us to collect and disseminate observed information and products to the users such as planners and policy makers, researchers, humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Dissemination of observed data to scientists, for processing and packaging, can also be a challenge especially when rural communities are also participating.

Learning from our efforts in two locations over southern Zambia, when  an automatic weather station is deployed and  placed within the mobile service network, it is the Meteorological Department to worry about the bill from the mobile service provider.

The Zambia Meteorological Department, through its RANET Project, is striving to reach rural communities by adopting the latest communication technologies as shown below:

1.      The RANET Project is using mobile phones to disseminate and collect weather/climate information from rural communities using the sms messaging/delivery system since mobile phone technology is the fastest spreading communication system in rural areas. We have to date given out twenty mobile phones and due to  good results so far the project plans to expand the network.    

In order to motivate our rural partners RANET has been recharging their phones with airtime once in a while. We are also testing the FrontLine SMS software to help us minimise the service cost. This would enable our rural partners to send sms messages to our centre free of charge with the cost charged to the Meteorological Department. In addition mobile phone holders are advised to allow other community members to use the phone whenever need arises but charge the caller for the airtime.         

2.      We are also piloting the deployment of a very new communication device called Chatty Beetle, which is a satellite based system for sending short messages of about 160 characters. The system uses the earth orbiting communication satellites. It has so far demonstrated that as a point to point system it can be even faster than the Internet. This is useful when sending observed climate information and disseminating warnings.            

3.      In order to reach remote rural areas with weather/climate information that is timely, the RANET Project has also been assisting rural communities to establish their own community FM broadcasting stations.

The advantage of community radio stations is that they translate weather information into their local language before it is aired, while communities are provided with solar/windup radio receivers to access the broadcasts. The stations also act as a forum for discussion of community problems, and to educate citizens on various issues, predominant among them the effects of weather on their crops.  The Zambian government is also reaching out to the rural masses using the same system.

 Community radio broadcasting, however, has problems arising mainly from lack of adequate funding for operations. Broadcasting stations depend on other business entities wanting to advertise their merchandise, and the sponsorship of programs. However, since they are generally found in areas where there are very few business organisations able to pay to advertise their commodities, the result is that stations lack the funds to hire qualified staff capable of producing quality programs to attract sponsorship, which would bring in money to sustain their operations. As a result, community radio stations depend on government and non-governmental organisations to support them through sponsorship of their programs, and depend on volunteers for their operational staff. It should be understood that radio broadcasting is the most cost effective and cheap way of information dissemination and education. This is why community radio should be supported as we face climatic extremes and variabilities. In Zambia the Ministry of Education is also using community radio to educate the disadvantaged children who are not able to be in formal school due to poverty and long distances from formal schools.

4.      In recent years the RANET Project has also been using the WorldSpace Digital Satellite Radio broadcasting system until the company was declared bankrupt in 2008. It was a very useful communication device through which weather/climate information was broadcast to rural centres, community radio stations and extension officers. The receiver is small and easy to install in remote rural areas with little or no maintenance required for long periods of two to three years.

5.      The content RANET Project has been disseminating is packaged in two categories of users (i) extension workers who can use it to improve their performance or interpret the information and then use it to educate their members in their daily activities and (ii) information that is meant to be translated into local languages and broadcast directly by the radio station. It is important for these radio stations to translate information before airing it to the community, this way information can reach a larger community audience.