Effectiveness of Seasonal Forecasts and Climate Risk Management

Climatic shocks directly impact household economies, but also often aggravate other stresses, such as disease burden (e.g. HIV/AIDS) (Tango International 2005). Vogel and O'Brien (2006) argue that climate forecast information treated in isolation (e.g. in 'stand alone' climate outlook forums) and disseminated in a traditional, linear fashion from producer to user, ignores the broader, complex social context in which such information is embedded. The needs of users, the role of culture and the complex interactions of traditional knowledge systems and 'external climate information' require better understanding and articulation. According to Vogel and O'Brien (2006), preoccupation with dissemination issues often distracts the focus from the contextual situations in which these tools are embedded. The contextual environment in which end users operate and use information is not neutral and egalitarian. End users, including farmers, usually operate in an environment of considerable uncertainty, reacting to and coping with multiple stressors and risks whose impacts are not always clear or predictable.

The way one interprets the linkages between climate, agriculture and food security fundamentally shapes the ways in which forecasts are usually 'framed', disseminated and eventually used. Recent investigations of the progress and outcomes of the Vulnerability Assessment Committees, established in 2002 in six countries to examine the food crisis in the Southern African region, have shown that measures of food gaps are not effective ways of capturing the causes of food insecurity in the region but that a wider, livelihoods-based perspective is required (Tango International 2005).

According to Vogel and O'Brien (2006), there is currently a disconnection between the climate information enterprise (e.g. modeling, forecast production, design, user-assessments, user needs and constraints to the uptake of forecast products) and the linkages and interplay with those operating in formal institutions (e.g. Departments of Agriculture, Water Affairs, Social Welfare, etc.) as well as informal institutions (e.g. welfare organizations, church groups, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, etc.). Hence greater attention needs to be given to what infrastructural and institutional advances are necessary to facilitate the use of forecast information within the livelihood strategies prevailing in a given region.

Cash and Buizer (2005) proposed that salience (the perceived relevance of the information), credibility (the perceived technical quality of the information) and legitimacy (the perceived objectivity of the process by which the information is shared) have a critical impact on how decision-makers accept and use information. From case studies from Australia, India and Brazil, Meinke et al. (2006) illustrate the influence that salience, credibility and legitimacy have on the degree to which end users embrace and apply what the climate science community has to offer, and how the nature of interactions with end users can either foster or damage these elements.

Meinke et al. (2006) illustrate salience in the context of efforts to reorient climate science to the questions that are relevant to Australian drought policy. Australian drought policy is focused on enhancing the self-reliance of farmers to manage climate risk. Self-reliance is intertwined with the vulnerability and resilience of the livelihoods of rural communities. Policy is largely powerless to influence the physical exposure of production systems to climate variability, but can enhance the resilience of rural livelihoods by influencing the diversity of assets and income sources from which rural livelihoods are derived, and flexibility to switch between them (Ellis 2000). Past scientific inputs to Australia's drought policy have focused on physical measures (e.g. variability in rainfall, soil water analysis and plant growth) of the extent to which rural communities are exposed to climate variability. These inputs are now expanding to include the human, social, natural, physical and financial assets from which resilient rural livelihoods are derived, and which policy can influence.

Credibility is discussed from the perspective of smallholder farmers in India. Experience with villages in southern India shows that intensive and costly interaction between researchers and rural communities can build the credibility of climate information. In this instance, the creation of credibility through stakeholder engagement bore the "seeds for its own destruction" by creating demand without a sustainable institutional mechanism to meet that demand beyond the life of the pilot project.

A well-documented case study from northeast Brazil illustrates the importance and fragility of legitimacy. The State of Ceara's Meteorology and Hydrology Service (FUNCEME) actively provides climate and related information to water resource managers and the region's agricultural community. The state government initiated a program, Hora de Plantar (Time to Sow), to distribute hybrid seed to smallholder farmers at the time when soil moisture conditions were supposedly adequate to ensure a good crop. Although the program was successful in some seasons, a perception that the program often distributed seeds too late to take advantage of early rain and, more importantly, disempowered farmers by transferring control of the decision-making process to government officials (Lemos 2003), weakened the legitimacy of both Hora de Plantar and FUNCEME. FUNCEME has recently made an effort to rebuild legitimacy by distancing itself from Hora de Plantar, implementing participatory activities with the agricultural sector, and producing their seasonal forecasts in collaboration with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and other international agencies that are independent of regional political interests.

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