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  • Understanding uncertainty to prevent humanitarian crises

Dialogue enables scientists and communities to work with uncertain information, say humanitarian policy experts Emma Visman and colleagues.

The international humanitarian and development community does not like uncertainty. Although increasingly effective in many ways, recent crises in East and West Africa have exposed long-standing weaknesses in how that community copes with uncertain information about emerging risks and future threats.

Take the warnings leading up to the 2011 food crisis in the Horn of Africa part of the problem was that they were based on probabilities from rainfall forecasts and the possible effect on pastoral and farming livelihoods.

The result was that despite these warnings, the humanitarian system failed to respond on an appropriate scale prior to emergency declarations and widespread media attention that is, once there was no uncertainty. The chance to prevent the crisis was missed.

While international humanitarian and development actors are attempting to address this by strengthening systems to build more resilience for emergencies, all too often these efforts fail to foster the kind of dialogue needed to manage risk and truly engage with at-risk communities.

Capacity to manage risk

Historically, aid institutions have tended to manage crises after they have occurred, rather than managing risk as a way of pre-empting emergencies. One way of building the capacity to manage risk is to bridge the divide between providers and users of scientific information, to advance understanding of uncertainty.

Since 2009, the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College, London, has developed an exchange between climate scientists in Kenya, Senegal and the United Kingdom, and a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Using innovative dialogue approaches, the programme encourages these groups to work with scientific information and risk in new ways.

The exchange has included a workshop approach developed by climate change consultant, Arame Tall, which fostered dialogue about scientific knowledge, climate information needs of communities at risk of flooding and drought, and risk management processes.

Another dialogue approach is participatory downscaling, developed as part of the project by Dominic Kniveton, a UK-based climate scientist. It identifies social or political events that trigger memories of major weather-related events, and then compares these with scientific observations and forecasts to help communities develop an understanding of how information can be right at one level and wrong at another.

As part of a related initiative in Asia, the Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN) and the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System (RIMES) have developed flood early warning systems that help at-risk communities to safeguard their livelihoods.

When forecasters explained, as part of the CFAN programme, that they would be correct perhaps seven times out of ten, participating farmers in Bangladesh recognised the value of this information. As one farmer put it: Only God knows 100 per cent what will happen. Right now, we take chances every year and that means we are right as often as wrong. Seventy per cent means I am ahead.

Benefits of dialogue

These and other dialogue approaches have revealed that people are capable of making decisions in uncertain situations.

When exchange activities took place in Mbeere, Kenya, farmers groups readily engaged with probabilistic information once it had been explained and trialled within the dialogue exercises.

The probabilistic nature of the seasonal forecast had not been explained to them (it was previously given in more deterministic language; also in inaccessible formats and channels), and they had not been advised on ways of translating it into options for decision-making about their livelihoods this is what the dialogue approaches provide.

In 2011, when seasonal forecasts of early short rains were issued, farmers who took part in the Kenyan project reported that they either planted early-maturing crops or used techniques that could withstand early cessation of the rains.

In a 2012 review of dialogue activities, farmers attributed significant yield boosts to key decisions based on better understanding of seasonal forecasts.

And in the Bangladesh initiative, about 3,000 households were better able to protect livestock, fisheries, agriculture and household assets, saving on average US$400 each, because of a greater understanding of flood forecasting information.

A blend of information

In all cases, multi-party and two-way dialogue is crucial. It is wrong to see scientists simply as dispensers of information for use by communities and practitioners.

Rather, dialogue provides the opportunity for the co-creation of scientific information. It also leads to more demanding customers, who are better able to ask the right kind of questions about emerging climate science.

And there are opportunities to blend different types of weather and climate knowledge, from indigenous sources and academic science, to build trust; develop new, shared sources of information; and support the downscaling of scientific information to geographic levels relevant to communities at risk.

In western Kenya, for example, the Kenya Meteorological Department is combining the techniques of indigenous forecasters, such as observing the flowering of trees and weather-sensitive movement of species (bio-indicators) with scientific models to create a seasonal forecast incorporating both kinds of information.

Preparing for future risks

The formal humanitarian and development system continues to struggle with uncertain information about risk, while climate variability and change, and demographic trends, are bringing more small- and medium-sized emergencies.

The dialogue approach offers potential for a scientific renaissance: to identify more relevant ways of using existing scientific knowledge; to enable the concerns of at-risk communities to refocus the research agenda; and to identify new opportunities for addressing future crises.

This approach could be effective in slow-onset emergencies, such as famine. But it could also have benefits in rapid events, such as tsunamis, by strengthening systems of accountability and enhancing communities engagement in risk management.

Through dialogue, the potential of scientific information to prevent loss of life and destruction of livelihoods can be unlocked.

Emma Visman is futures group manager at the Humanitarian Futures Programme, Kings College London, United Kingdom; Benedict Dempsey is senior humanitarian affairs adviser at Save the Children in London, United Kingdom; and S. H. M. Fakhruddin is team leader of hydrology at the Regional Integrated Multi-Hazard Early Warning System (RIMES) in Pathumthani, Thailand. Emma can be contacted at emma.1.visman@kcl.ac.uk.

This article is part of a Spotlight on Improving early warning of disasters.

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