Water-related stress and ICTs: New publication includes developing country experiences

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Por Alan Finlay and Edit Adera para APC

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 08 May 2012

This collection of reports looks at how ICTs can be used to help communities in developing countries facing water stress adapt to climate change. The role and potential of ICTs in helping communities employ innovative approaches to prepare for, respond and adapt to climate change are increasingly being recognised. Within the water sector, ICTs can contribute towards improvements in water resource management techniques; strengthen the voice of the most vulnerable within water governance processes; create greater accountability; provide access to locally relevant information needed to reduce risk and vulnerability; and improve networking and knowledge sharing to disseminate good practices and foster multi-stakeholder partnerships, among others. While drawing on current experiences in the field of water management and sustainability, the perspective of the authors is primarily from the ICT for development (ICT4D) sector. Because of this the reports should be considered exploratory, offering a fresh perspective to the field of water security in vulnerable contexts.

Commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), this collaboration between the two organisations involved several activities – regional research, workshops, knowledge and experience sharing, and discussions from the field.
While water management and sustainability is a specialist concern with its own body of evidence that has emerged over time, the interface of ICTs, climate change and water arguably poses new theoretical challenges and practical gaps. For one, there are not enough projects practically demonstrating the positive potential and innovative impact ICTs can have at the grassroots level in managing water resources. While a number of projects do exist, they are not yet widespread enough to meet the adaptation needs of communities facing water crises given the impact climate change is already having at the local level.

At the same time, the ICT4D sector itself has only recently seen a wider consideration of how climate change will impact on its work – the interface between ICTs, climate change and water is a complex one, involving new policy dynamics and areas, as well as sciences, that may be unfamiliar to many practitioners. How the sector itself adapts to a relatively new field of inquiry remains to be seen, and part of the purpose of this publication is to catalyse that process.

The report brings together the conclusions made by the researchers, many of which overlap. The authors show that using ICTs for water management is not necessarily an emerging field, but rather, one that has attracted fresh currency in the context of climate change. This has implications for developing a research agenda given that there is potential to draw on the body of existing theoretical thinking and practical experiences in the field, including the experience of ICT4D practitioners in implementing grassroots ICT projects in communities.

Water security is also not just a climate change issue. As has been pointed out, climate change is likely to exacerbate development problems that already exist. Issues such as poverty divides and population growth, which will increase water stress in communities, will be magnified through the lens of climate change, even while climate change is likely to introduce new challenges due to impacts on water cycles and availability.

The application of ICTs for adaptation in contexts of water stress faces a central challenge: a lack of readiness in many communities, despite the proliferation of mobile phones, which limits the scope of local ownership and the potential of using ICTs for adaptation. This calls for the simultaneous unlocking of policy bottlenecks that might inhibit the take-up of ICTs in vulnerable communities. At the same time, while there is a desire and some potential for scalability, generalised assumptions regarding the potential of ICTs to catalyse innovative adaptation at the local level cannot apply. Innovative models are conditional on the readiness of any one local community. Adaptation implies localisation, in format and language, among them. Asia shows that even traditional ICTs – such as TV and radio – pose a challenge for local-level learning. Similarly, mobile strategies will differ, for instance, in regions like Asia and Africa, and between countries in these continents. Given this, it is unlikely that anything but rudimentary one-size-fits-all technology applications at the local level – with local ownership and usage – is likely to be feasible.

While policies need to be unlocked at the national and regional levels to unblock bottlenecks that inhibit innovation, and while regional and national ICT initiatives – for instance for data sharing and mapping – hold potential, local-level application can best be served through methodological approaches that determine the appropriateness of local innovation strategies using ICTs. These should, as the ICT4D sector well knows, incorporate local practice and knowledge for buy-in into innovation and adaptation. Given this, there is a need to pay attention to local-level variables, even while this may pose challenges for scalability.

The chapters also point to the need to link to local knowledge, resources and practice when implementing ICT strategies. While the regional studies argue for a close analysis of the implications of ICTs at the local level, also supported by the research questions emerging from a workshop held in Johannesburg in January 2011, researchers Angelica Ospina, Richard Heeks and Edith Adera offer a meta-level conceptual approach that allows for variability and consideration of local-specific dynamics. Their model draws out the specific role of ICTs, but does not necessarily promote an ICT-centric approach.
All contributors emphasise the need for pro-poor strategies, and for research agendas to foreground the impact of climate change on water security in vulnerable communities. Cliche and Saravia state this as a moral imperative – that there is a need to act now, and that sufficient data exists to justify that action. It is hoped that this publication does its part in challenging and unlocking some of the inhibitors to action.

Read the executive summary or download the full publication: Application of ICTs for climate change adaptation in the water sector: Developing country experiences and emerging research priorities.

Find out more about how APC’s work on ICTs and the environment greeningit.apc.org

Photo by BigStock. Used with permission

(FIN/2012)

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