The Big Idea: Farsighted Forecasts

by David J. Craig Published Winter 2017
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Lisa Goddard / Photograph by Jeffrey Saks

The University recently announced that it will work with your team to replicate and expand this effort in several other countries.
Right. This will be part of an initiative called Columbia World Projects, which President Bollinger launched earlier this year to promote academic endeavors that address pressing global problems. We’re going to be joining forces with faculty from across the University on this, as well as longtime partners in international organizations. We’re still in the process of selecting five to six host countries. But our efforts in each country will aim to accomplish four goals related to agriculture: improving food security, nutrition, and economic livelihoods, and supporting environmental stability.


IRI also has quite a few ongoing projects in Africa, in countries that include Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia. What does your work in these countries look like?
Helping farmers is a major focus of our work in Africa, too. In addition to providing farmers with climate forecasts, we’ve developed a new type of agricultural insurance, called index insurance, that issues payouts to farmers in years when the weather is especially bad. This is different from traditional insurance. Traditional insurance policies pay people in accordance with the losses that they personally experience. But that kind of insurance is prohibitively expensive to administer in some developing countries. That’s because in order to verify losses, insurance adjusters would have to visit every single farm, and they’d be inspecting huge numbers of small farms spread out over vast distances. But if payouts are based on a climate outcome, the administrative costs plummet and insurers are able to sell policies for less. We’ve conducted studies demonstrating the effectiveness of this approach in several African nations. As a result of our work, millions of farmers on the continent now have access to insurance for the first time.

They’re benefiting in some surprising ways. It’s not just a matter of covering their losses in bad years. Insurance can also give farmers the security they need to fully capitalize on good weather. We’ve found that poor farmers who are insured are much more likely to respond to favorable climate forecasts by taking calculated risks that enable them to get out of debt, and even see profits. This might mean getting small loans to purchase fertilizer, high-yield seeds, or additional livestock. We’ve shown that if farmers capitalize on a few good seasons in this way, they can often lift themselves out of poverty.


Is there a certain level of education people need to use your forecasts?
We find that people of all backgrounds are accustomed to dealing with fairly complex choices in their work and that, with a little training, they’re usually able to make use of the information we provide. Farmers in developing countries have to be pretty savvy in order to survive. 

IRI scientists are not typically working directly with individual farmers, though. We often provide training to local agriculture officials or humanitarian-aid workers who then translate the forecasts to farmers in ways that make sense to them. In this way, we can help the largest number of people.

But even working with these intermediaries, we face challenges. In some of the places where we’ve worked, the local language has no word for the concept of “probability.” Once, in a meeting in Kenya, a colleague of mine communicated the concept to local aid workers using a paper airplane, which he flew repeatedly, marking all the spots where it landed on the floor to represent the range of possible climate outcomes. The locals got it, and their communities have since embraced our forecasts.

A meeting of farmers in Bagerhat district, Bangladesh, to discuss climate-adaptation strategies. / Photograph by Sari Blakeley

Do farmers in the United States rely on seasonal climate forecasts?
Not as much as you might think. The National Weather Service generates some seasonal forecasts, but the agency honestly doesn’t have a lot of traction with American farmers. This is partly because major agribusinesses here in the US, as well as in other wealthy countries, have such elaborate irrigation systems and insurance subsidies that they’re somewhat insulated from the variability of climate.

Do you see international support for this kind of work gaining momentum?
Oh, absolutely. Global warming is a driving force behind it. Outside the United States, where discussion about climate change has not been warped by politics, there is little debate about whether global warming is real. Everybody sees it’s real. Farmers can see the effects it’s having. They know that they’re experiencing increasing temperatures and thus more severe droughts, and more powerful storms than their parents and grandparents saw. And city dwellers recognize that they’re becoming more vulnerable to floods and water shortages and deadly heat waves. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen more and more countries willing to invest in climate forecasting systems, as the need to adapt to climate change takes on greater urgency.


What are the challenges of your work moving forward?
You’d think that in an age when weather satellites are continuously orbiting the earth we’d have all the data we need to produce climate forecasts for the entire planet, but that’s not the case. The problem is that in order to produce forecasts that are truly useful to people — that is, those that indicate how an upcoming season’s climate may compare to what people in the region are accustomed to — you also need historical climate data. This typically consists of many years of rain-gauge and temperature-sensor readings that have been digitized and uploaded into global databases. But in some developing countries, this data is incomplete or hasn’t been digitized yet. One of our big initiatives now is to work with African countries to fill in the gaps in their historical records so that we can generate better forecasts for them. In the future, we hope to provide the entire continent with monitoring and forecasts as detailed as those now available in Uruguay.


To learn more, visit www.giving.columbia.edu/iri.

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