Climate scientists and communities can find common ground
Fruitful dialogue in Africa shows the gap between climate scientists and decision makers can be bridged, says adaptation specialist Arame Tall.
African countries face a growing threat of hydro-meteorological disasters such as droughts, floods, pest infestations, water-related epidemics, storms and cyclones. Whether correlated with anthropogenic climate change, a result of increased human vulnerability or merely the outcome of better disaster reporting, the number of reported hydro-meteorological disasters in Africa has been rising since the mid-1990s. 
African policymakers can make informed decisions about climate-change adaptation if climate researchers can provide them with the relevant data, including an explanation of the uncertainties inherent in climate and weather forecasting. But such substantive dialogue between climate scientists who produce forecasts and warnings, decision makers in government planning agencies, and vulnerable communities will not happen in a vacuum.
Several barriers prevent available climate and weather information (forecasts) from filtering down to potential users. They include scientific jargon, inadequate dissemination channels to reach the most vulnerable people, and poorly formalised institutional frameworks at a national level.
In 2009, I began to work with the Red Cross/IFRC and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction to test a novel participatory approach to establish a substantive dialogue at the national level between climate forecasters and Red Cross disaster managers in Senegal. The Early Warning, Early Action workshop consisted of a three-day facilitated dialogue.
On one side of the table were scientists working at the national level, directly involved in producing climate and meteorological forecasts. On the other side of the table were representatives from a vulnerable fishing community in northern Senegal, which is affected by annual floods and tidal waves, and 30 Red Cross volunteers from 11 regions of Senegal who had never seen a climate forecast before.
Most of the forecasters, climate modellers, hydrologists, remote sensing experts and agro-meteorologists in the group had never interacted with users who did not understand scientific jargon or had never heard of the climate-change phenomenon El Niño. And for the most part, the community and Red Cross representatives did not see the relevance of climate forecasts to their daily lives or to the humanitarian relief work they do.
Listen and learn
The challenges were clearly laid out. Both communities had to find common ground by actively listening to the other in the 72 hours they were gathered together.
They had to share knowledge on the science and uncertainties inherent in climate forecasting, and on community climate indicators, experiences and climate information needs. And they had to find areas for joint collaboration in their common mission to reduce community vulnerability to rising hydro-meteorological disasters.
At the heart of the workshop was the belief that the two communities had a tremendous amount to learn from each other, but had to come to that realisation by themselves so that they could develop a 'thirst' for additional interaction and sustained communication.
The dialogue was mediated through a series of icebreakers, small group sessions, formal and informal discussions, as well as educative games.  A 'no PowerPoint rule' was strictly enforced.
The participatory methodology was designed to foster more direct and in-depth user-to-scientist exchanges. Indeed, the two communities came to realise how interdependent they were.
Scientists learned to listen to the information needs of the Red Cross community users who told them that the periodic forecast bulletins they issued were of no use to them in their existing format.
A game activity brought climate scientists face to face with the reality that users would act on all received forecasts, regardless of probability levels. This led the scientists to conclude that they should issue operational alerts, rather than jargon-ridden forecast bulletins, and would need to work alongside end users to design components such as alert thresholds and information transfer mechanisms.
Disaster managers, on the other hand, came to understand the incredible value that forecasters could bring to their relief work and lives, by informing them of likely atmospheric conditions and hazards, as well as giving them more information on which to base their disaster planning decisions.
In the 30 Red Cross volunteers, the scientists found a network that could effectively relay meteorological information into the communities where they live, serve and are trusted.
More workshops needed
By 2011, six additional Early Warning, Early Action workshops were conducted — two more in Senegal, two in Kenya, one in Uganda and one in Ethiopia — establishing a structure for a National Framework for Climate Services.
But there are constraints to scaling up this approach. The success of these workshops depends on creating the right institutional conditions, garnering enough political buy-in and attracting to the discussion table stakeholders from all climate-sensitive sectors (health, agriculture, water, tourism, livestock and infrastructure) who can work together to create a national framework.
Such substantive and iterative dialogue processes need to be supported by the donor community and sustained by national governments. The success of the pilot workshops shows that the gap between providers and users of climate and meteorological information can be bridged.
These workshops offer a concrete way for climate researchers to work with decision-makers to identify the right information that will need to be channelled to them to support adaptation. The workshops need to be scaled up before it is too late to alleviate the impacts of climate-related disasters.
Arame Tall is a consultant who specialises in climate change adaptation and climate disaster risk management in Africa. She pursued her PhD at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC, USA, investigating the institutional underpinnings of effective climate change adaptation. Arame can be contacted at [email protected].