New tool tracks floods, droughts for world’s most vulnerable farmers

A farmer ploughs through hardened soil on a rain-dependent rice field in West Java, Indonesia. (Danumurthi Mahendra/Flickr)

Researchers have developed a drought and flood monitoring tool for farmers without easy means of anticipating such weather events, even though their livelihoods rely almost solely on rainfall.

Developed at the request of UNESCO, the program provides a way to view a vast amount of weather data across Africa and Latin America, including some of the world’s most environmentally and economically vulnerable regions. Users can access a wealth of information on wind speed, temperature, precipitation and stream runoff, and organize the data to better visualize weather patterns over short-term, seasonal and climatic time frames.

Such information is vital to farmers who live on less than a couple of dollars a day, and whose livelihoods depend on their ability to plant seeds in line with that season’s rainfall, according to lead researcher and Princeton professor Eric Wood. If their crops fail, he said it is nearly impossible for them to recover their losses.

“At all those time scales, people are making decisions,” Wood told Humanosphere. “At the time scale of the season, there are very few tools out there, and farmers just aren’t getting access to it.”

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This is partly due to the challenge in streamlining meteorological data from various sources into a single accessible tool. Other researchers have used satellite data to create index-based insurance to protect vulnerable farmers in countries like Guatemala, where natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. But the Princeton team is the first to provide such a comprehensive forecasting tool on a continental scale, with little direct funding, for policymakers and community farmers alike.

“These programs came from us recognizing that all the data out there were really hard to put together, even for professionals,” Princeton graduate student Colby Fisher said in a summary of the research on the university’s website. “There’s always been a gap between research and what’s actually done on the ground.”

The researchers say the program will be even more useful as rising global temperatures make once-occasional floods and droughts more severe and unpredictable. In recent months, such weather patterns have devastated rubber farmers in southern Thailand and banana farmers in the Dominican Republic, where people already living in poverty are now faced with rebuilding their farms.

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Wood said his program has already garnered interest in Cambodia, where escalating floods and droughts have dramatically reduced rice yields, making an agriculture-reliant population more vulnerable than ever.

Still, he said farmers have long been in need of tools that help them make their own decisions regarding droughts and floods, which have affected farmers throughout the last decades of advancement in weather forecasting.

“Now is a good time to start giving people this information, because they have the technology and they have the internet access to be able to access it,” said Wood. “But there’s been a need for a long time, it just hasn’t been met.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com