If central Mozambique is expected to get very little rain in the coming months, how should that information be shared with a small-scale farmer planting maize, the staple crop, in a remote village?
“Just simply providing the weather data that there will be 60 or 70 percent chance of less rainfall means nothing … to Ana, a small-scale farmer in Mozambique,” said Jan Egeland, co-chair - with Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, former Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation - of the UN High-level Taskforce charged with developing guidelines for disseminating climate information.
“We ought to be able to tell her, ‘Don’t plant maize this season, plant cassava; or, plant your maize early,” Egeland told IRIN. Such information will become increasingly critical as natural events like rainfall, or the lack of it, grow more extreme, and the weather becomes more erratic as climate change takes hold in the coming years.
The guidelines for communicating climate data in a meaningful way to vulnerable people will be part of what the tool for climate action - called the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) - will offer, as well as trying to address gaps in climate information gathering.
“We need the Mozambican government - with the help of UN partners such as FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation], or NGOs such as the Red Cross - and national weather services to be able to interpret weather information [so that it] will help Ana to make a decision on how to adapt,” Egeland said.
Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told reporters at the 16th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, Mexico, that so far 2010 was the one of the top three warmest years since instrumental climate records began in 1850. He said it was a sign that global temperatures were rising at a faster rate, as the other two warmest years -1998 and 2005 - were both recent.
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Access to good quality weather data and forecasting capacity is essential if poor nations are to respond effectively to the threats that climate change presents to food security, human and animal health, and economic progress, but many are ill-equipped to gather or provide such information.
The WMO notes that there are only 744 weather stations in Africa, and only a quarter of them are of international standard – ideally, Africa should have at least 10,000 stations.
There could be a solution. Bernhard Pacher, an Austrian consultant to the World Food Programme (WFP), who also manufactures easy-to-use automated weather stations in his home country, said local municipalities made climate information easy for everyone to use.
"For example, if temperatures are going to soar and there is risk of infections, the municipality simply posts a message telling farmers to spray pesticide now, and they pin a red flag on the notice board outside so it catches the attention of farmers passing by, and they follow the instructions,” he said.
Mobile phones could be an effective tool for communicating messages to poor small-scale farmers in developing countries. "You would find at least one person with a mobile phone in a village; make that person the focal point and convey messages on actions to be taken through that person."
Pacher said Africa would need at least 30,000 weather stations to provide farmers with accurate data on micro-climates. Climatic conditions varied according to a range of factors, including the topography, amount of water, tree cover and altitude in an area.
"In many instances in Africa, the installation of weather stations does not take those factors into account, so the quality of data generated is not very credible. Often a weather station is installed in an area after taking into account whether it will be secure or not, rather than the other way round.'”
Improving the weather data in developing countries was commendable, said Pablo Suarez, associate director of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Centre, but the biggest challenge would still be to make it meaningful to the most vulnerable people. “The biggest benefactors of these efforts would be sectors such as commercial farmers - which is great - but we have to work on this a bit more.”
The need for a GFCS to address these gaps was raised at the third World Climate Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2009.
While sharing information about the GFCS team’s work on the sidelines of the UN climate change talks in Cancun, Egeland said it would take an investment of only US$50 million to $100 million a year from 2010 to 2021 to improve the weather services in developing countries. “Our report will be released in January 2011 and submitted to the World Meteorological Congress in May 2011.”