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:


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.


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.

ICTs and Adaptation Mapping: Emerging Initiatives

As the international spotlight on COP15 decreases, the most challenging part of the process has just begun: the time for action and accountability, the time to learn the lessons, digest the vast amount of information shared, and identify synergies for coordinated action.

This challenge is particularly relevant to emerging topics such as the role of ICTs in climate change.

Although most of the attention on the role of these technologies in climate change has been focused on mitigation efforts, namely on their role to help reduce the carbon footprint, interest is increasing in their contribution to monitoring and adaptation.

As an example of the growing momentum that these technologies are generating, an organisation called Resources for the Future launched the Global Adaptation Atlas during the Copenhagen event. The Atlas consists of a dynamic mapping tool that allows the creation of maps reflecting climate change impacts.

The data displayed focuses on the impacts of climate change in food, health, land, livelihood and water, all critical issues especially in developing countries.

This initiative is particularly interesting when considering factors such as:

  • Beyond thematic impact, the map displays adaptation activities (information that can also be uploaded by users), including project description, funding and contacts, which can help to foster collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts.
  • It highlights the importance of information sharing for monitoring and adaptation, as well as the usefulness of spatial information that can be reflected in user-friendly interfaces (having greater chances of being accessed by end-users in vulnerable areas)
  • It also suggests the potential of innovative applications to inform and convey knowledge to decision makers, researchers and the public in general on key climate change threats.
  • It shows us that ICTs can play a role in helping to reduce climate change uncertainty, and identify key areas of vulnerability. This can be particularly important to mobilize and motivate action at the local and national levels.

Interesting initiatives that relate to the use of ICTs in climate change are emerging worldwide. It is now our task to share them, discuss them and learn from them, building on the momentum generated by COP15 to avoid key issues and gaps identified falling into the cracks of global action.

ICTs and COP16: Some Issues to Consider

As we move beyond the hype, the hope or the frustration that events such as COP15 inspire, its fair to recognize the intrinsic value of the process that has brought us here. There is value on the renewed global awareness of the fact that our environment is rapidly and irreversibly changing, as well as on the realization of the close links that exist between climate change and the vulnerability of the poor.

There is also value in the recognition of new issues that play a role in fostering development amidst the shifting climate, and that can make a difference in the type of response that we are able provide to its challenges. Amongst them, the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is particularly relevant.

ICTs and Climate Change was the focus of a side event organized by ITU and OECD, in partnership with GeSI, during the UNFCCC climate change talk in Barcelona, last month. All the presentations are available in YouTube.

Graham Vickery (OECD) was one of the speakers invited (starts in minute 8:24).

He pointed out the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of ICTs in our daily life, and perhaps because of it, we have failed to make the link between their potential and our response to climate change.

He also suggested 3 main levels of ICT impact in the environment: (a) ICT equipment (electricity and energy use, raw         materials and disposal), (b) ICT ‘Smart’ applications, and (c) ICTs and the need for systemic change. According to Vickery, part of the challenge is making these three levels more clearly linked with major areas that are under consideration right now, namely mitigation, adaptation, and technology transfer.

His presentation raises some interesting issues for discussion:

  • How would the climate scenario look like if –at least part of- the 4 billion mobile telephone subscribers play a role in monitoring and documenting the effects of climate change, and in managing the carbon footprint?
  • What type of ‘Green changes’ could ICTs help us foster in our daily lives? What could we do different or more efficiently with the help of these tools?
  • How could we contribute as consumers –and producers- to the three main levels that Vickery points out?

In considering these questions its useful to look at Richard Heeks’ overview model on ‘ICTs, Climate Change and Development’, as it provides further details on the ways in which ICTs can play a role in mitigation, monitoring and adaptation strategies.

All these issues will need to be carefully considered as the global community moves forward from COP15 to COP16 in Mexico 2010. And although new hype, hope and skepticism will continue to surround the process, we need to be better prepared to effectively insert ICTs and its contribution to development into the climate change agenda.

Overview Model of ICTs, Climate Change and Development

The model shown below indicates the various domains of relation between information and communication technologies (ICTs), climate change and development. These are:
– Mitigation: how ICTs can reduce carbon emissions (but also how they contribute)
– Monitoring: how ICTs can help measure and analyse climate change and its impacts
– Strategy: how ICTs can enable strategic actions on climate change
– Adaptation: how ICTs can help developing countries adapt to climate change in the short- and longer-term

This is still a model under development, so comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.