ICTs, climate change and water: need for local adaptation strategies

In collaboration with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), APC is releasing a series of reports discussing opportunities for information and communication technology (ICT) to help individuals and communities adapt to water scarcity as a result of climate change.

Climate change is having a profound and worsening effect on the availability and quality of water for people worldwide, with the poor hardest hit. A combination of changes in rainfall patterns and amounts, causing more flooding and more intense droughts, and rising temperatures, resulting in increased evaporation and glacial melt, are reducing the reliability and quality of water supplies. Without adequate intervention to improve access and management of water resources, it is clear that the poor will suffer more.

Presenting conceptual tools for practitioners, Angelica Ospina, Richard Heeks and Edith Adera elaborate on a potential methodology for integrating ICTs into the “design, operation and evaluation of projects” in contexts of water stress. As the authors state, they offer a “process-focused” approach, which is intended to have practical application and testing in real-life contexts (what the authors call “concrete e-enabled adaptation actions”).

Importantly, the authors argue that adaptation should not be considered as something new – individuals, communities, groups, cities – adapt all the time, and it should be considered a constant articulation of change rather than an event (even though climate change could precipitate a single catastrophic event that leads to the sudden need to adapt). While climate change is “challenging the ability of vulnerable populations to withstand, recover from and adjust to change”, the authors argue for adaptation strategies to be wide-ranging in their approach, and to address development priorities holistically rather than with a single, frequently reactive approach that only considers climate-related impacts on communities.

One of the key considerations of the model developed is that project processes respond to local realities, and that mechanisms are in place to ensure that it remains responsive to local needs. As the authors put it, “these considerations are key in order to ensure solid linkages between the use of ICTs, and the water adaptation needs that the projects are ultimately trying to tackle”. Drawing on the ICT4D Value Chain, the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, and the concept of digital capital, the model outlines the symbiotic relationship between institutional frameworks and specific resources at the local level, whether social capital, human, or financial that are needed for the implementation of a project. As the authors point out, the model is not an ICT-centric approach, even while it attempts to interface the potential of ICTs with local adaptation needs:

“The effective implementation and use of ICTs for adaptation is based on the recognition that the presence of digital capital within vulnerable livelihoods cannot be automatically equated with the contribution of these tools to adaptation. Instead, the analysis of ICTs’ role and potential in regards to the adaptation of water resources should be conducted systemically, taking into account the presence of other livelihood determinants (e.g. enabling institutions, structures and assets in the climate change and ICT fields), as well as the influence of both enablers and constraints in the process of ICTs implementation” (Ospina et al., forthcoming).

Researchers in Latin America and the Carribean (LAC), Africa and Asia support and expand on the need for locally contextualised adaptation strategies. Emphasising that the global poor and marginalised will be most severely affected by climate change, LAC regional authors, Gilles Cliche and Miguel Saravia, argue that all stakeholders have a moral responsibility to actively address climate-relate challenges. The authors go on to highlight existing information and knowlege gaps:

“There is a huge challenge particularly for mountain and hillside rainfed agriculture in Central America and the Andes where local climates are very complex, and where reliable historical and current meteorological and hydrological data series are rarely available” (Cliche and Saravia, forthcoming).

In their assessment of the African region, Washington Ochola and Samuel Ogada-Ochola, emphasize that any impact of climate change will be compounded by basic developmental inequalities, such as illiteracy, poor governance, weak institutions and infrastructure, limited access to health facilities, armed conflicts, and limited access to technology. They support Cliche and Saravia’s contention that the strategic use of ICTs should have a pro-poor bias, especially in a region where, like the LAC, water resources are unevenly distributed, and where “more than 40 percent of Africa’s population lives in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas and about 60 percent live in rural areas and depend on farming for their livelihoods”.

Despite the progress in human development in the Asia and Pacific region, Rajib Shaw reminds us in his report that the region is still home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, with strong gender inequalities, and country-specific development divides. At the same time, there is a strong dependency by the region’s poor people on water resources for socio-economic and cultural security, who are, in effect left frequently excluded from the rapid development felt around them.

Shaw also suggests that multi-stakeholder co-operation is critical in setting the research agenda: “[o]ften governments, NGOs and businesses accentuate what divides them rather than recognise their shared values. At the same time, research, conducted in universities and other isolated forums often does not reach the intended beneficiaries”. The author points to the need for “inter-connectivity” in order to address the digital divide in adaptation strategies. Regional cooperation, he says, should focus on developing appropriate solutions that address digital differences: “[a]ny future research agenda needs to articulate the technological differences between countries, so that the capacity-building and technological limitations and possibilities can be properly understood”. Similar to the other authors gathered here, Shaw points to the need to link modern and traditional approaches, and the need for ICTs to “consider the interface between traditional skills and knowledge”.

In the final chapter to this book, Tina James outlines emerging research questions in the field of ICTs, climate change and water, drawing many of these questions from a workshop held in Johannesburg in July 2011.

James notes several factors to consider when developing a research agenda. These include decenterling an ICT-centric approach in favour of a needs-based approach to water security. Clarity on what should be considered a “community” is also necessary, as is scalability, drawing on past experience, and developing a shared vocabulary (including, for example, whether a project aims to address climate change or variability). She draws attention to one of the contributions the ICT4D sector can make to the field of water security: “The use of ICTs in creating new opportunities for communications and collaboration between stakeholders is…recent and in this area there may be room for innovation and taking on board the lessons learned from other ICT4D applications.” The importance of the practical link between knowledge and practice is also highlighted by the author, as well as attention to the dynamics or needs implicit in “community-driven” or “community-owned” initiatives.

The full publication will be available online in April 2012.

Image by Living Water International. Used with permission under Creative Content license 3.0.