Climate Change Resilience and Innovation: Learning from New Orleans

Five years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with devastating force and catastrophic consequences, important lessons about vulnerability, resilience and innovation continue to emerge.

Despite the fact that this disaster took place in the context of a developed nation, its effects on poor and marginalized populations reminded us that prevailing vulnerabilities can act as threat multipliers, and suggest key lessons in terms of the ability of a system –at the household, community and national levels- to withstand, recover and adapt to short term hazards and long term climatic trends.

These lessons are becoming increasingly relevant for developing countries, struggling to cope and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

What can developing contexts learn from disasters such as Katrina in terms of the role of resilience and innovation?

The lessons are multifold. A recent article by Andrew Revkin identifies eight key resilience findings from New Orleans, all related to the challenges posed by climate change and associated hazards. The following are some of the main issues drawn from Robert Kates’ findings, which can in turn be used to reflect on the potential of ICTs towards climate change resilience:

  • Understanding and tackling existing vulnerabilities play a key role in the response to climate change, in both developed and developing contexts.
  • Building community resilience is a long-term process that involves much more than ‘bouncing back’ in the aftermath of a disaster, including the capacity for anticipation (e.g. early warning systems), emergency response, rebuilding and reconstruction.
  • Surprises should be expected, and resilient communities learn from them in order to strengthen future anticipation, response and recovery strategies.
  • The importance of scientific and technological knowledge resides in the extent to which is effectively disseminated and used at the micro, meso and macro levels.
  • Multi-stakeholder partnerships and social networks constitute important foundations of resilience in vulnerable environments.
  • Disasters accelerate pre-disaster trends, including issues such as declining livelihoods sustainability and migration.
  • Vulnerability has numerous dimensions, and the impact of climate change-related events is hardest when geophysical vulnerability is matched by vulnerability at the social, economic and political levels.
  • Increased adaptation to short term, frequent threats can increase long-term vulnerability to rare disasters or changing trends. This suggests the need for systemic, longer-term perspectives in climate change strategies.

These findings evidence the important role of resilience to strengthen the ability of vulnerable communities to anticipate, respond, recover and adapt to climatic events. But the rapid diffusion of mobile phones and the widespread adoption of Internet and Web 2.0 tools, pose the challenge of rethinking these findings in light of the potential (and risks) of innovative tools such as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) within vulnerable environments impacted by the effects of climate change.

Therefore, based on Kates’ findings we could ask:

How can innovative approaches using ICTs tools help us tackle existing vulnerabilities in the face of both short and long term climate change threats, help vulnerable communities to better anticipate and respond to climatic uncertainty, facilitate the dissemination and access to relevant knowledge, and foster partnerships and collaborative networks to help reduce climate change vulnerability?

One approach to analyzing the linkages between ICTs and resilience is based on the set of resilience sub-properties identified in a recent paper produced by the University of Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics with the support of Canada’s IDRC, as follows:

  • the role of ICTs to strengthen the robustness of vulnerable systems (e.g. increasing preparedness through applications such as GIS or modeling applications);
  • the role of ICTs in broadening the scale of assets to which communities can have access (e.g. integrating local producers with broader supply chains through mobile applications);
  • the role of ICTs fostering redundancy of resources (e.g. facilitating access to additional financial capital through Internet applications);
  • the role of ICTs increasing rapidity in the access and mobilization of assets (e.g. through mobile-based communications networks or mobile banking);
  • the role of ICTs supporting flexibility to identify and undertake different actions (e.g. by enhancing access to knowledge and supporting livelihood diversification);
  • the role of ICTs in support of processes of self-organisation (e.g. facilitating social networking and collaboration);
  • the role of ICTs fostering learning (e.g. enhancing local skills and dissemination of traditional and new knowledge).

Most of these sub-properties can be related to the resilience findings that Kate highlights from the experience of New Orleans, and play an important role in the exploration of the role of ICTs and innovation towards resilience building within vulnerable contexts.

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For additional information on resilience lessons from New Orleans see:

Colten, C.E., Kates, R.W, and Laska, S.B. (2008), “Community Resilience: Lessons from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina”, CARRI Research Report 3. Available at: http://www.resilientus.org/library/FINAL_COLTEN_9-25-08_1223482263.pdf

Building Climate Change Resilience: the Role of Social Memory and ICTs

Remembering plays an important role in times of change.  It provides us with the necessary experience to move forward and with sources to seek renewal and re-organisation, which in turn are crucial for building resilience and strengthen the capacity of vulnerable communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Although the role of memory tends to be overshadowed by that of innovation, the two are in fact important foundations for change, and are equally relevant within contexts that are struggling to adapt to the uncertainty inherent to natural disasters and slow changing climatic trends.

In a 2006 article for the Global Environmental Change journal, Carl Folke stated that resilience was much more than being persistent or robust in the face of disturbances. It is also about the opportunities that disturbance opens up, the possibility to transform into more a more desirable state [1].

And part of the ability to identify and act on those opportunities is based on the role of our ‘Social Memory’, which Folke defined as “captured experience with change and successful adaptations embedded in a deeper level of values, and actualized through community debate and decision-making processes into appropriate strategies for dealing with ongoing change” [2].

Social memory is therefore key for linking past experience with present and future adaptation actions, and in turn allows for novelty and innovation.

Although emerging evidence on the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) within the climate change field indicates their potential in processing and accessing climate change information, making sense of scientific data and relating it to the local context [3], less has been documented in regards to their role in building social memory within vulnerable contexts to climate change. So the following question emerges:

How can ICTs contribute to strengthen social memory and build resilience within vulnerable contexts to climate change?

ICTs could play a role mobilizing social memory from past adaptive experiences, capturing local traditional knowledge and facilitating innovative responses based on lessons from the past.

Mobile phones and emerging Web 2.0 applications (e.g. social networking sites, Blogs, wikis) can become useful tools recording the adaptive experiences and the history of marginalized communities impacted by the effects of climate change; thus helping local stakeholders to identify options, re-organise and implement novel solutions in the event of present and future climatic disturbances.

ICTs can also help fostering community debate around climate change issues, as well as more transparent and inclusive decision-making processes that lead to adaptation strategies relevant to the needs of the local context.

The role of social memory is closely linked to the concept of resilience, as it contributes to the robustness of the system to resist the occurrence of climatic disturbances, but also fosters its ability to self-organise, learn, and ultimately adapt. In turn, the linkages between ICTs and resilience sub-properties (e.g. robustness, self-organisation and learning, among others) have been reflected in the e-Resilience Framework recently developed by the University of Manchester Centre for Development Informatics with the support of Canada’s IDRC.

Within the emerging field of ICTs and climate change, the role of the past is not to be discarded.

While much remains to be explored about the links between collective memory, resilience and innovation, ICT tools offer a still untapped potential for local communities to capture, disseminate and learn from past adaptation experiences, and to foster novel, yet locally appropriate solutions to the challenges posed by the changing climate.

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[1] Folke, C. (2006) ‘Resilience: The Emergence of a Perspective for Socio-Ecological Systems Analyses’, Global Environmental Change, 16:253-267.

[2] Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P. & Norberg, J. (2005) ‘Adaptive Governance of Socio-Ecological Systems’, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 30:441-473.

[3] Labelle, R., Rodschat, R. & Vetter, T. (2008) ICTs for e-Environment: Guidelines for Developing Countries with a Focus on Climate Change. International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Geneva http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/cyb/app/docs/itu-icts-for-e-environment.pdf.

e-Resilience: Rethinking the Potential of ICTs towards Climate Change Adaptation

The concept of Resilience occupies an increasingly prominent place within the climate change debate.

Defined by the Resilience Alliance as “the capacity of socio-ecological systems to absorb disturbances, to be changed and re-organise while maintaining the same identity”, resilience means much more than just bouncing back after the occurrence of a climatic event.

It entails the ability of the system to learn from the disturbances, to change and adapt; ultimately acquiring the flexibility necessary to deal with the uncertainties and the opportunities posed by climate change.

The attributes of resilience are particularly relevant within developing contexts, where the effects of more intense and frequent climate change-related events exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, further limiting their capacity to withstand, recover, and adapt to the changes.

But, how can vulnerable contexts that are already facing the burdens of poverty and marginalisation, build resilience?

The rapid diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as mobile phones and the Internet, is adding new angles to this debate. Effective access and use of ICTs could pose new opportunities for developing countries that are at the forefront of climate change impacts to build resilience and achieve adaptation.

According to a recent paper titled Linking ICTs and Climate Change Adaptation: A Conceptual Framework for e-Resilience and e-Adaptation, ICTs have the potential of contributing towards climate change resilience and, therefore, could help to enable livelihood strategies that allow adaptation; that is recovery and adjustment in the face of climate change.

Defined as “a property of livelihood systems by which ICTs interact with a set of resilience sub-properties, enabling the system to adapt to the effects of climate change”, e-resilience is suggested as an emerging area of study to understand how innovative ICT tools and approaches can strengthen the response of vulnerable systems to the challenges and uncertainty posed by climate change.

According to this approach, ICTs have the potential of contributing towards a series of resilience sub-properties (namely robustness, scale, redundancy, rapidity, flexibility, self-organisation and learning), thus helping to strengthen the adaptive capacity of vulnerable systems affected by climatic disturbances.

Although much remains to be explored in terms of the role of ICTs towards systemic resilience, the introduction of this concept constitutes a positive first step towards a debate that could shed light not only on the role of these tools within climate change, but also on the extent to which ICT4D initiatives have addressed and contributed towards resilience building in the field.

Evidence on the role and challenges posed by ICTs within climate change are still, for the most part, anecdotal and scarce, particularly in regards to adaptation. But as research continues to advance in this topic, and the linkages between the fields of climate change, ICTs and development continue to strengthen, the concept of e-resilience will likely re-emerge, to be discussed and transformed.

As the impacts of extended periods of drought, heat waves, extreme storms or slow-changing climate trends continue to intensify, so will the need for developing countries to build resilience, a complex concept that goes well-beyond ‘bouncing back’ in the aftermath of a climate-related event. Resilience increasingly entails finding innovative solutions, with the help of tools such as ICTs, that enable vulnerable contexts to learn, adapt and possible transform in face of the uncertainties posed by the changing climate.

From ‘What If?’ to ‘What’s Next?’: Emergent Research on ICT, Climate Change and Development

The rapid diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has been accompanied by an increasing body of research exploring both the potential and challenges associated with the use of these tools, particularly in developing countries. Research in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field has advanced by often aiming at moving targets, as new technologies are continuously developed, different priorities emerge, traditional technologies merge with newer ones in development practice, and players and agendas at the local, national and international levels constantly transform.

ICT4D research takes place within contexts that are in continuous metamorphosis: social, economic, political, and increasingly, climatic.

Research at the intersection of ICTs, climate change and development constitutes a field of possibilities and challenges that were unimaginable only a few years ago. The role of ICTs towards dematerialisation, transport substitution or climate change governance, which in the past may have seemed far removed from the priorities of the global South, are becoming issues of increasing attention, along with the exploration of new approaches to climate change monitoring and adaptation that are viable and sustainable within contexts affected by poverty and marginalization.

What a few years ago constituted “What if” questions in regards to the role of ICT within the climate change field, are given way to the question “What’s next?” particularly in regards to the needs of developing countries, where the effects of climatic disturbances often exacerbate existing development challenges and vulnerabilities (IPCC, 2007; Moser et. al, 2008).

A recent report titled “Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study addresses this question by suggesting six emerging research areas at the intersection of these fields [1]:

(a) Mitigation

  • ICTs and community-level mitigation
  • ICTs, climate change and global value and supply chains
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging consumer trends
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging business practices

(b) Monitoring

  • ICTs, climate change monitoring and local empowerment

(c) Adaptation

  • ICTs, climate change and localization
  • ICT and local livelihoods
  • ICTs, local voices and awareness raising
  • ICTs and emerging social aspects of climate change

(d) Strategy

  • ICTs, climate change and inclusion
  • ICTs, climate change and governance challenges
  • ICTs and climate change decision-making processes

(e) Disaster Management and Response

  • ICTs, disaster management and response

(f) Technologies: Impacts and Issues

  • Low-cost and emerging technologies

Although these issues are not meant to constitute an exhaustive list of emerging topics, they do invite reflection by ICT, climate change and development practitioners, researchers and visionaries alike, in order to determine a new agenda of research and action towards the future.

Innovative ‘what if’ approaches have paved the way to new solutions that are increasingly being tested and implemented in the field, as the diffusion of ICTs, particularly mobile phones, continues to permeate the fabrics of developing country societies.

But as the impacts of stronger storms, drier seasons, heavier precipitation or rising sea levels become more visible, so does the importance of identifying What’s next? in terms of research in the ICT, climate change and development field.

Therefore, this entry ends with an open question, an invitation to think about

‘What else is next?’

Which other topics could we identify in terms of the potential of ICTs to help developing countries to effectively adapt, monitor, and ultimately contribute to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

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[1] The areas and issues identified in the report are based on an overview of the trends that literature on ICTs, climate change and development has followed in since the 90’s, the main components of the Overview Model on ICTs, Climate Change and Development, as well as on the analysis of experiences emerging from developing countries as key areas for future research.

References:

IPCC. 2007. Fouth Assessment Report (AR4). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), http://www.ipcc.ch

Moser, C. & Satterthwaite, D. (2008) Towards Pro-Poor Adaptation to Climate Change in the Urban Centres of Low and Middle-Income Countries. International Institute for Environment -and Development (IIED), London http://www.iied.org/pubs/pdfs/10564IIED.pdf

Ospina, A. V. & Heeks, R. (2010) Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study. Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for development Policy and Planning (IDPM), University of Manchester, http://www.niccd.org/ScopingStudy.pdf

ICTs, Creativity and Resourcefulness: Can ICTs enable Adaptive e-Ingenuity?

More than 10 years ago, before the debate over climate change was at the forefront of the international agenda, Thomas Homer-Dixon referred to Ingenuity as ideas applied to solve practical social and technical problems; a concept that goes beyond the development of new technologies or drought-resistant crops, and includes more efficient markets and better social arrangements (1).

Today, amidst growing evidence of a changing climate and its impact on vulnerable populations, ingenuity could be a key factor in the adaptive capacity of developing country communities affected by climatic variability and changing trends.

For the poor, whose livelihoods are largely dependent upon natural resources, responding and adapting to the unpredictability of dry or rainy seasons and their effect on water supply and food scarcity, among others, depends not only on their (limited) access to resources, but often on their inventiveness, resourcefulness and creative skills to cope with the challenges of daily life, within contexts characterised by marginalization and development constrains.

The increasing diffusion and adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can help enable ingenuity and contribute towards climate change adaptation, as emerging evidence from the field is starting to suggest.

A project led by the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), a NGO based in Kenya, uses iPods as tools for marginalized communities to access content relevant to their livelihoods, particularly farming and husbandry techniques. Through podcasts that tailor the most pressing needs of rural farmers affected by climatic variations, ICTs are playing a key role in the distribution of information and best practices, including markets and market prices, appropriate seeds and crops, alternatives to costly fertilizers and pesticides, among others. The information disseminated is rooted in field experience from local practitioners and traditional knowledge that emerges from the community. Some of these podcasts can be viewed online.

At the same time, Maarifa Centres (Maarifa is the Swahili word for knowledge) are used at the community level to engage local stakeholders with the use of ICTs, while linking the information accessed to the priorities of local adaptation efforts to the effects of the changing climate, particularly food scarcity and water supply due to changing patterns in rain.

The adaptive efforts of the Kyuso community in Kenya, and the role of Maarifa Centres, can be seen in a video available online (7:02 minutes).

Young members of the community are trained to act as infomediaries, supporting communities to access relevant information and document best practices that are disseminated using the Internet, video clips, blogs and Web 2.0 tools. According to a recent article published on the project’s Web site, farmers will also be using a Web-based portal and SMS to share market information including prices of commodities and bidding online.

As initiatives such as this one continue to emerge in developing countries, it seems relevant to ask:

Could the use of ICTs within local adaptive strategies lead to increased ingenuity –i.e. to the emergence of new ideas to solve practical problems caused by the effects of climate change?

Early evidence suggests that ICTs could play an important role inspiring, sharing and helping to realize adaptive ideas, fostering community-based practical solutions to the challenges that arise from climate change impacts, and potentially benefiting from emerging opportunities (2).

But although evidence from the ICT4D field suggests the potential of these tools facilitating access to information, fostering knowledge sharing and strengthening social networks and productive processes (among others), further research and analysis is required in order to assess the full extent of their role, and of the challenges associated to it, within adaptive processes in the global South.

ICT-enabled ingenuity towards adaptive actions, or what could be referred to as ‘e-ingenuity’, is a concept that may deserve further attention, as evidence on the role of ICTs within the climate change field continues to emerge.

From new ICT uses and applications, to strengthened social networks and organizations that support local adaptive efforts, ingenuity could act as an enabler of effective responses to climate change-related hazards and variability, while building on the existing social capital, knowledge and experiences of local actors.

As the work conducted by ALIN reflects, the ICT for development field is in no shortage of inspiring projects and initiatives that defy the constraints posed by deeply rooted development challenges.

The task is now for the academic and practitioner communities to articulate efforts towards the systematization and analysis of emerging experiences from the field, including the ways in which developing country communities are adapting and solving the challenges posed by climate change in their daily lives: through creativity, resourcefulness, and increasingly, through the use of ICT tools.

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(1) Homer-Dixon, T. (2000) The Ingenuity Gap, Vintage, London.

(2) Ospina, A. V. & Heeks, R. (2010) Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study. Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for development Policy and Planning (IDPM), University of Manchester, http://www.niccd.org/ScopingStudy.pdf

ICTs and Climate Change Adaptation: Who’s Really Listening?

In the midst of a continuous surge of information on climate change and its potential effects, adaptation experiences are emerging from every corner of the planet. And nowadays, news travel fast.

A 0.30 second Google UK search of adaptation + climate change provides more than 86,000,000 results containing these words.

Among those, stories on how communities in developing countries are coping with and adapting to climate-related manifestations are spreading swiftly.

But in a world where everything seems to be increasingly interconnected, are we really listening?

What is the link between strategies for crop diversification in drought-affected Congo and flood-prone Bangladesh, with early warning systems in small islands of the Caribbean, or new water management mechanisms in the Andean mountains?

Part of the answer lies at the very core of human nature:

Communication.

Discussing, learning, asking, sharing, are among the basis of adaptive processes, and can be both enabled and facilitated by the potential of new and traditional Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as Internet access, mobile telephony or community radio, among others.

It is within this context that the Communication for Sustainable Development Initiative (CSDI) of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), recently published a report exploring the role of Communication for Development (ComDev) approaches within community-http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i1553e/i1553e00.pdf adaptation (CBA).

As part of this document, Simone Sala suggests that ICT tools are employed towards three main actions:

a) Record data and information;

b) Transform these data and information into knowledge that can be shared; and

c) Communicate these data, information and knowledge.

Salas then relates these areas with the main steps that need to be taken within adaptation processes (namely observation, analysis, planning, implementation & management, capacity building and networking), in order to demonstrate the potential of ICTs within community based approaches, which are characterized by multistakeholder action, innovation and social learning.

The report constitutes a valuable source to reflect not only on the potential of ICTs and innovative approaches to climate change, but also on the foundations of the climate change debate:

Amidst an increasing tide of information on the topic, how do we keep our perspective afloat?

Communication for Development offers important hints.

By highlighting the value of community participation and empowerment, the promotion of locally relevant information, and the integration of indigenous and scientific knowledge within adaptive processes, it reminds us that reducing the vulnerability of developing communities should be a key driver of actions in this field. And these are areas in which ICTs have a significant potential.

It is equally important to reflect on the potential challenges posed by new technologies, as well as on the enabling environments (including institutions, legal structures and policy frameworks) that are required for ICTs to play an effective role within adaptation.

The report produced by FAO provides a good basis for this discussion, and also suggest the need to conduct further research on the question of who’s really listening.

Issues such as the links between actions enabled by ICTs at the community level and climate change policy making, or the role of community-based organizations and infomediaries (including telecentre workers) within local adaptation processes, as well as the role of ICTs towards climate change perceptions and awareness raising, remain open for discussion.

The Potential of Telecentres in Disaster Risk Management

According to a Policy Brief by ESCAP (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), telecentres have the potential to play a key role in disaster risk management at the community level.  Described as community centres that provide public access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) such as telephones, computers and the Internet, their rapid adoption across the globe has been accompanied by a surge of additional services (e.g. e-learning and training, e-government and financial services) that respond to the needs of the local demand.

In addition to services associated with the use of ICT tools, sources in the field have also indicated their role strengthening social networks, empowerment and participation, as well as fostering productive processes at the local level through the provision of employment and skills, as well as support services for micro-enterprise activities, among others.

In rural communities of developing countries, with limited capacities and resources to respond to the effects of extreme natural hazards, drought, landslides, floods, and to the impacts of these events on local social systems (e.g. health, infrastructure, transportation, migration), the potential of telecentres for disaster preparedness and response is emerging as an area of increasing interest.

ESCAP’s Policy Brief suggests that telecentres could be key in re-defining the top-down approach to disaster management, towards community-based strategies where access to information and knowledge is facilitated by the use of ICTs.

The document identifies four main areas of telecentre potential in the field:

  • Capture and disseminate indigenous knowledge for community-based disaster risk management (DRM), including local knowledge of hazards, vulnerabilities and available resources, using the centre as a knowledge hub in support of preparedness strategies;
  • Support of information bases for disaster risk management, as telecentres could help organize community inputs into the planning and execution of disaster risk reductions actions (e.g. digitized resource maps, chronological logs of disasters);
  • Provision of awareness raising and training, based on locally-based needs and priorities and disseminated broadly through telecentre networks and the support of open-source collaboration software, and
  • Communication of risk and last-mile early warning in local communities, potentially acting as a command centre for disaster response and coordination of efforts.

These areas of potential are starting to be reflected in experiences in the field. From Village Resource Centres in India, to Informatics Clubs in Colombia, telecentres have begun to play a role in way communities organize themselves and respond to the challenges posed by climate-related hazards and changing climatic trends.

But along with areas of potential, ESCAP also identifies prevailing challenges in regards to the use of telecentres in disaster risk management, namely:

  • Lack of resources for capacity building and training.
  • The need to ensure the availability of critical connectivity (power supply, connectivity and telecommunication equipment) in areas affected by climate-related disasters.
  • The sustainability of the telecentres.

In this last regard, and as part of a series of policy recommendations, ESCAP suggests that integrating telecentres as part of national disaster management programmes could enhance their sustainability whilst fostering the above mentioned areas of potential.

This document not only evidences the need to deepen our understanding of the role and potential of telecentres within developing contexts that are highly vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change, but also poses key issues for further discussion, among them:

  • The importance of community leadership and empowerment within disaster risk management and preparedness strategies, & the enabling potential of ICT tools towards community-based approaches. In this regard, the physical and social spaces provided by telecentres at the local level, as places to gather and share, could be pivotal to strengthen a resilient social fabric.
  • The potential role of telecentres in livelihoods recovery and strengthening (in both pre & post-disaster scenarios).
  • The key contribution of indigenous knowledge within DRM and climate change-related strategies, and thus the potential of telecentres to help compile, digitize and disseminate that knowledge.
  • The need to ensure an effective articulation of efforts between the myriad of stakeholders at the local, regional and national levels that play a role within DRM, mitigation and adaptation strategies. Among them, telecentres play a key role helping integrate and raise the voice of rural communities that are often excluded from wider socio-economic and political systems, and that are the most vulnerable to the impacts of natural hazards.

In many remote communities of the global South, telecentres constitute a key component to be considered within strategies to respond to the uncertainties and the challenges posed by a changing environment. They also hold an important potential towards the reduction of local vulnerabilities that needs to be further explored in light of the current climate change debate.

The Potential of ICTs in Climate Change in 2.03 Minutes

When confronted with the question “What do ICTs have to do with climate change?” many ICT advocates tend to experience a familiar situation: a puzzled look starring into their eyes, a hint of disbelief, followed by a brief moment of silence… and the frantic search for simple words to convey a message that has nothing to do with cables and wires. A message based on the potential of these tools to help people, especially low-income populations, to better cope and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate.

And it is precisely in the field of climate change adaptation where a great part of ICTs’ potential and research needs, currently lie. This topic is particularly relevant for developing regions, where prevailing poverty and resource constraints limit the ability of communities to withstand and recover from the impacts of climate hazards such as floods, droughts, cyclones and hurricanes, among others.

A 2:03 minute video supported by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) provides an excellent example of how images are worth more than a thousand words, particularly when trying to convey the developmental potential of ICTs in the climate change field.

The video portrays the impact that information access has in strengthening local livelihoods and fostering the empowerment of fisherman in rural India.

Thanks to an initiative led by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) to use access to information as the key to holistic rural development, fisherman can access online weather forecast, wave height and location of fish in local knowledge centres.

Content provided is tailored to the information needs of the local community, and is translated into the local language. This information allows fisherman not only to reduce the risk and uncertainty of weather conditions at sea, but also to increase their efficiency by learning the exact location of fish, thus lowering their use of fuel, time and costs.

The emergence of these experiences evidence the fact that new and traditional ICTs, including mobile phones, the Internet, community radio and participatory videos, have the potential to play a critical role in communities whose livelihoods depend on natural resources, and that are the hardest hit by changing weather patters and by the increased frequency and severity of climate-related events.

Given the fact that most of the available literature in the field of ICT and climate change has focused on their potential to reduce CO2 emissions and foster a low-carbon economy, thus reflecting the priorities of developed countries, further research needs to be conducted to better understand their role, potential and challenges within adaptation processes.

Based on this new research, including the documentation and dissemination of practical experiences from the field, responding to questions about the role of ICTs in climate change from a development perspective will be a much easier task.

Finding the Balance: Environmental Sustainability, Growth and the Role of ICTs

In a context of pressing environmental challenges, developing countries are facing the haunting task of balancing the achievement of economic development goals, particularly in the poverty reduction front, with the need for environmental sustainability.  This challenge is especially serious for countries that are highly dependant on agriculture, often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability.

With the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods, extreme weather events and the associated impacts on food security, human health and biodiversity loss, the need for innovative approaches to sustainable development, including the use of ICTs, is gaining renewed momentum.

An article recently published in the Sustainable Development journal, titled “Achieving Environmental Sustainability and Growth in Africa: the Role of Science, Technology and Innovation” (Webersik and Clarice, 2009), discusses this very issue. The authors argue that advances in science and technology solutions such as remote sensing, ICTs, biotechnology and transportation, are having important development implications, which are key to achieve the goal of sustainable development while maintaining or improving the environmental performance of African countries.

In relation to the use of ICTs, the article points out the role of applications such as handheld computers, smartphones and global positioning systems (GPS) in the provision of a sustainable data flow in developing countries, as well as in the monitoring of environmental, energy, disaster management and other issues related to global warming.  It also refers to the role of mobile technologies in the provision of market access for rural farmers, and their contribution to local empowerment and productivity.

However, it also recognizes that the opportunities and risks associated with the use of emerging technologies are often met with skepticism and a narrow understanding of their development potential, which has limited their effective use in the development field. This challenge becomes evident when reflecting on the emerging role of ICTs in the response to climate change, and the increasing need to convey their potential to policy makers and development actors working in mitigation, adaptation and monitoring strategies.

Although the article is based on the analysis of sub-Saharan Africa, many of the environmental challenges identified correspond to those faced in other developing regions, and the conclusions drawn are equally relevant to their contexts. Issues such as deforestation, declining soil productivity, pollution, freshwater scarcity or increased social vulnerability, among others, are also at the forefront of development agendas in Asia and Latin America.

The following are some of the key points raised in the article, all with relevant ramifications in the study of ICTs in the climate change field:

  • The adoption of Science and Technology policies must be informed by environmental perspectives that are directed towards sustainable growth and development.
  • The implementation of new technologies must be linked to the improvement of local livelihoods and the need to overcome the basic problems of poverty, hunger and alienation.
  • The effective implementation of ICT related initiatives is closely linked to the availability of capacity building/higher technical education opportunities, and supportive institutional frameworks.

The authors conclude that higher priority needs to be given to scientific research and environmentally sound technologies. They also emphasize the potential of new ICT applications to meet basic needs in fields such as agriculture and health, and contribute to environmental management.

The challenge of finding solutions that enable and foster economic development while sustaining the environment is not new in the development arena. However, we now have the added task of demonstrating the value that innovative approaches, such as the use of ICTs, can have in improving the capacity of vulnerable countries to better mitigate, adapt and monitor the changing climate.

Note: The picture is the ¨Nevado del Quindio¨ (Snow Peak of Quindio) in Colombia.

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WEBERSIK, C. & CLARICE, W. 2009. Achieving Environmental Sustainability and Growth in Africa: the Role of Science, Technology and Innovation. Sustainable Development, 17, 400-413.

ICTs for ‘e-Environment’: The Broader Picture

While global concerns rise over the impacts that human activities have on the environment, an increasing number of ICT practitioners, researchers and technology advocates are exploring the potential of these tools in the response to climate change.

In the midst of the imminent, yet uncertain climatic conditions, interest in mitigation and monitoring strategies is now combined with the urgency of learning to cope and adapt to climate changes, particularly in vulnerable developing environments.

It is in this context that research on the role of ICTs in climate change is starting to flourish through a number of projects and initiatives, supported mainly by international organizations and NGOs around the world. Some of these can be found in a report commissioned by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) titled ICTs for e-Environment.

The concept of ‘e-Environment’ was used in the 2003 World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) Plan of Action to make reference to the benefits of ICT applications in three main areas:

  • ICT use for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources;
  • ICT use in actions and programs for sustainable production and consumption, and the environmentally safe disposal and recycling of discarded hardware and components used in ICTs; and
  • ICT use to forecast and monitor the impact of natural and man-made disasters, particularly in developing countries, LDCs and small economies.

Building on this definition, the 2008 ITU report provides a comprehensive account of ICT activities and applications that indicate the impact of ICTs in the environment, as well as their role in mitigation and adaptation efforts. It also provides a set of recommendations aimed at strengthening the capacity of developing countries to benefit from the potential of these tools in the context of climate change.

The document is an important contribution to a flourishing field of enquiry, and constitutes a great starting point for further in-depth research and discussion.

The findings of the report include the following key points:

  • ICTs & Carbon Footprint: ICTs can help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) missions while increasing energy efficiency and reducing the use of natural resources (through travel replacement, dematerialization and reduced energy consumption).
  • ICTs & Human Activities: While ICTs are essential to our understanding of the environment, further research is needed to understand the long-term impacts of ICTs on human activities.
  • ICTs & Decision-Making: New technologies such as geographic information system (GIS) and a new generation of web-based services are having a profound effect facilitating decision-making.
  • ICTs & Connectivity: Broadband Internet connection is a key tool to support environmental research, learning and decision-making.
  • ICTs & Developing Capacity: Developing countries face important challenges in taking advantage of ICT tools in their response to climate change. It is necessary to strengthen their mitigation and adaptation capacity, while helping them to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  • ICTs & a Holistic Approach: Its necessary a comprehensive and integrated approach to global environmental action through access to ICTs and new management practices to avoid duplication of efforts.
  • ICTs, e-Government & the Environment: It is necessary to raise the profile of environmental issues within ICT strategic planning initiatives at the national level, particularly in e-Government initiatives.

In view of the growing international attention to developing country needs and perspectives, the report provides a good opportunity to reflect about how to effectively engage developing stakeholders in the analysis and implementation of climate change actions and strategies.

Beyond the provision of guidelines or recommendations, how can the international community work hand in hand towards joint action in the e-environment field?  This question includes stakeholders from the Government, civil society and private sectors, as well as the international donor community.

Six years and many international forums have passed since the 2003 WSIS, and although important progress has been made, and we are still facing the challenge of firmly positioning the ‘e’ as part of the environment discussion.