Weather alerts by text message: a climate change adaptation success?

Weather alerts by text message: a climate change adaptation success?

By Innocent Katsande

Accurate weather forecasts can help farmers to improve their harvests and protect their livestock, but poor rural communities often lack access to this information. In the first of a series of blogs on climate change resilience, Zimbabwe programme communications coordinator, Innocent Katsande, describes how a system of automated SMS weather alerts, organised by Oxfam with the Zimbabwean government, is improving smallholder livelihoods.

In Zimbabwe, climate change is affecting rural communities more severely than previously anticipated or imagined. This phenomenon has come into being through a gradual process of changing temperatures and rainfall patterns. The poorest rural farming communities especially marginalised women in the country have been at the mercy of escalating frequencies and intense natural hazards such as droughts and floods. These climatic changes are increasingly threatening their livelihoods.

Many Zimbabweans find themselves living and earning a living in farming areas with poor soils, high temperatures and low and unreliable rainfall.Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate in the formal sector is currently over 70%, fueled largely by the manufacturing industry which is operating below 30% capacity and an economy growing at a rate below 7% for the past decade. The severe economic situation has resulted in poor rural communities having to become more dependent on climate related activities, such as rain-fed agriculture, for their livelihoods. Today many Zimbabweans find themselves living and earning a living in farming areas with poor soils, high temperatures and low and unreliable rainfall. Many of these communities are in a compromised position where they lack the human, financial and institutional capacity to respond to the impacts of climate change.

In these communities climate change has already begun to have a negative impact and is expected to pose an even greater challenge with regards to food production and food security. Rainfall patterns are changing and extreme weather events are set to increase.

Community-engagementwebversionFor many rural farmers who obtain a livelihood from climate reliant activities the situation is exacerbated by a lack of understanding and information on weather, climate variability and climate change, making it difficult for them to make informed agricultural decisions. Traditionally the Department of Agricultural and Technical Extension (AGRITEX) has been responsible for disseminating information to smallholder farmers on issues such as agronomy, marketing and technical issues, as well as weather and climate. However, the Zimbabwean extension services lack the capacity, training and equipment needed to provide a comprehensive service.

In response to the dire needs of smallholder farmers, specifically in Chirumanzu, Zvishavane, and Gutu Districts of Zimbabwe, Oxfam in partnership with the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) and AGRITEX is currently implementing a climate change adaptation, building on a food security and livelihoods project that has been implemented over the last four years.

stationwebversionExtension Workers presenting the Automatic Weather station. Credit: OxfamThe project is primarily aimed at addressing poor access to information on weather, agro-meteorology and climate change amongst smallholder farmers and agricultural extension service providers by enhancing their knowledge of weather, agro-meteorology and climate change adaptation. With this aim agro-meteorological information is being disseminated via SMS to extension workers, schools and smallholder farmers who in turn further cascade the information to other farmers that are not on the platform.

As a result of the project at least 900 farmer representatives, school representatives and extension service providers are regularly receiving three day agro-met information during the changeable winter season and ten day agro-met information during the summer season.

Here’s an example message from September 19, 2014:
Expect partly cloudy to cloudy conditions. It will be generally warm. Light drizzle is expected especially from 21 to 22 September. No ground frost is expected throughout the period. Day time temperatures should be between 24 to 27 degrees celsius overnight temperatures should be around 15 degrees celsius. Do not start uncontrolled fires.’

Among many advantages of the scheme, it has enabled farmers to:

Efficiently use inputs and reduce the risk of inputs losses. Improve timing on activities such as adding manure in conservation agriculture basins, fertilizer application, and weeding of crops during the rainy season.
Realize improved harvests of horticultural produce during the winter season by protecting crops when there is a risk of frost.
Reduce livestock diseases and deaths by ensuring that livestock are sheltered and dipped.
Avoid uncontrolled fires

‘Nobody can take away the knowledge I have gained… This season, I have planted short season variety crops as advised in the agro-met information and I am expecting a good harvest’Maidei Shoko, 36 a female farmer from Takaendesa village in Zvishavane said ‘Nobody can take away the knowledge I have gained as a Community Weather and Climate Club Member. This season, I have planted short season variety crops as advised in the agro-met information and I am expecting a good harvest’. Mrs Musara,an Extension Worker from Gutu district, also said ‘The project has built my confidence in my work and I am able to guide the farmers in making farm management decisions’.

The project implementation is on track and Oxfam continues to work well with the Zimbabwe government through the technical partners AGRITEX and ZMSD. All the partners are optimistic about the project and what it sets to achieve as well as the different innovative approaches that the project is using in the dissemination of the agro-meteorological information to ensure that all smallholder farmers can access the information whenever they require it.

Our challenge for the future is to increase agricultural yields while decreasing the use of fertilisers, rain fed water, fossil fuels and other negative environmental inputs. Embracing human ingenuity and innovation in fighting and adapting to climate change seems the most likely path to success.


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