Minds on the Information Gap

Climate risk management in the Caribbean, an educational approach

By Elisabeth Gawthrop
International Research Institute for Climate and Society

On the road from Hewanorra airport in southern St. Lucia to the capital in the north of the island, a bridge is missing, washed out during heavy rains on Christmas Eve, 2013. A sharp curve steers vehicles around the bridge-less gulch. The taxi driver tells us the reroute on this vital road was completed in a matter of days. A year and a half later, the bridge is still a work in progress. It’s June, so the wet season is only just beginning, and the narrow, deep trench is bone dry. I try to imagine the amount of water that must have gushed through here. Where did it come from?

That’s a question for climate scientists and meteorologists, and typical of one that researchers study at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). It’s also a question that doesn’t go far enough.

As knowledge of our climate improves, the process of turning that knowledge into information usable for decision making needs attention.

Although deterministic forecasts — such as those that declare what the high temperature will be today — are tricky at the climate timescale, scientists can try to give some form of advanced warning for increased (or decreased) chance of risk from a climate variable (be it rain, heat, hurricanes, etc). Sometimes scientists can offer information on multiple timescales. For example, this map provides advanced warning for areas expected to receive exceptionally heavy rainfall over the next six days. At the other end of the forecasting timescale, uncertainty remains an obstacle for long-term climate projections. But the intent is the same for estimating climate at the end of the century; people want a measure of risk as they consider, for example, whether to build new development along a flat coastline.

Seasonal scale prediction — e.g. the likelihood of above-normal rainfall in an upcoming season — offers some of the most skillful climate forecasts scientists can produce. Areas of the tropics are especially favorable for seasonal prediction because they’re influenced most directly by the source of climate variability scientists know the most about: El Niño Southern Oscillation.

The problem is that although climate scientists may give a probability for increased risk, this information is often in a variable that a decision maker can’t readily use.

Knowing why a climate event happened, being able to predict a climate extreme, these are increasingly-available types of information. But if a forecast isn’t accessible to the people who can do something with it, it is not useful information.

This is what brings me and my IRI colleagues to St. Lucia. For the last three years we’ve partnered with regional institutions to generate relevant climate knowledge for improving climate risk management in the region, and in particular to assist water managers to incorporate this knowledge into their decisions and plans. The work has been funded via a grant from Higher Education for Development and the US Agency for International Development.

We are here for the Caribbean Climate Outlook Forum (CariCOF) — a regional meeting in which climate scientists present a forecast to decision makers — as well as a workshop for water managers to explore the potential for using climate information in the water sector. Most of the videos throughout this piece are interviews from those organizing and participating in the workshop.

Grants such as the one funding this project typically focus on developing a new formal university course. “But we quickly received a reality check,” said Walter Baethgen, the principal investigator on the project and IRI senior research scientist. “We realized there would not be enough time to pilot a course and finish the accredidation process at the University of the West Indies during the grant’s time period.”

Working in the field of climate adaptation sometimes requires adapting to your own projects. Staying flexible and nimble allows for changes in the approach to the project that are more tailored to local needs. Consistent obstacles in international development include making “improvements” that are not sustainable and providing information that is not usable. In its projects, IRI seeks to work as a catalyst, lending expertise to help develop information products and systems that decision makers can — and want to — use after the project ends.

The key in achieving this is to listen to regional partners about their needs and constraints, and then identify together the key gaps that climate expertise could help fill. Our regional partners in this project were the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES) at the University of West Indies (UWI) and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), a regional training and research organization.

Near the beginning of the project, through our partners at CERMES, project organizers found out that most decision makers in the water sector were not using any climate information. While a university course would provide knowledge and skills for future decision makers to use, such an approach would not reach current water managers, planners or ministry officials.

“Knowing that we would not have time to establish formal University courses, we decided to work with the people who are directly involved in water management: practitioners that make decisions on water allocations, waste water, ground water, etc.,” said Baethgen.

Instead of a formal course, staff from IRI and Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning developed a series of four short courses on climate information and use in the water sector.

“We developed courses oriented to help water managers incorporate climate information in their day-to-day decisions and plans. The nice thing is that the material can be easily modified to become formal courses for the University’s curriculum,” said Baethgen.

“We first envisioned the courses being taught entirely in person at CERMES,” said Ashely Curtis, project coordinator and senior staff associate at IRI. But travel between islands in the Caribbean can be arduous and expensive, often requiring overnight layovers. “We realized that in addition to the high cost of bringing people from other countries to Barbados for the training, it would be too much of a burden on working professionals to take time away from their jobs for the course in-person,” said Curtis.

So, the courses were offered online, in the late afternoon, and thus were accessible to practitioners who can begin using the knowledge in their planning and decision making right away. The process for formalizing the course at UWI has begun, with hope of being able to offer it in 2016–17 school year. Project partners are also looking for ways to continue to offer the courses to Caribbean water managers, as there is still interest from individuals and organizations in the region. Notably, when the courses were advertised, nearly 200 inquiries were received from those outside of the Caribbean region.

One of a series of discussion briefs that IRI developed with CERMES to help policy makers to understand how climate information could be used to manage water resources.

Another intent of the project was to help build a community of practice by first establishing a website that could serve as a resource and organizing tool. The project partners recognized, however, that such a resource would be difficult to maintain following the end of the project. They decided instead on a series of high-level discussion briefs informing policy makers about the potential use of climate information in the water sector.

“In its 20 years of experience the IRI has learned that in order to use climate information in actual decision making and planning, water managers need the backing of their institutions,” said Baethgen. “One of the objectives of the briefs was to help build that needed support.”

Other elements of the project included scholarships for Caribbean students to attend Columbia University’s MA in Climate and Society program, the first-ever internship program at CERMES and the development of a Climate Impacts Database. This database, launched this summer, is establishing a record of climate events and their local impacts in the Caribbean, with the eventual goal of being better able to predict such impacts when a climate forecast is made.

Here’s what two recent graduates had to say about how they benefited from the project’s efforts:

The last major component of the project was the support of technical trainings associated with the CariCOF.

During this semi-annual event, scientists from meteorological services across the region receive training to improve their forecasting capacity. They then present this information to representatives from sectors affected by climate — e.g. health, agriculture, water resources and tourism — and gather feedback for designing more tailored forecasts relevant for decision making in these sectors.

“The CIMH-IRI project team selected research and training topics based on regional needs and capacity gaps, and they were determined over the course of the project, not set out in advance,” said Curtis.

The first CariCOF training focused on improving best practices and assessing the accuracy of 3–6 month rainfall forecasts. The second training focused on temperature and drought forecasting, and the third on subseasonal prediction of wet spells.

The gathering of scientists and stakeholders at CariCOF also provides the ability for related side-meetings and workshops, such as the one for water managers in St. Lucia.

It was great that we were able to meet with the water managers,” said Baethgen, who helped lead the workshop. “The first thing they said was, ‘You want to help us? Help us to develop the capacity for using quantitative methods that help us improve our water-related decisions and planning.’ So that’s what we discussed.”

When a sector uses quantitative tools to make decisions, especially tools that can handle uncertainty, it becomes much easier to embed climate information into that decision making. Through the workshop, project scientists and water managers came to the conclusion that they first needed to develop such tools, in this case hydrologic models.

“When you learn how to use a hydrologic model, you’re automatically learning how to use climate information,” said Baethgen.

“Then you just connect the forecasts. And you have something that’s a lot more useful, because instead of forecasting climate, you’re forecasting water resources.”

Establishing the capacity for water managers to develop, use and maintain hydrologic models will take more time and resources, but the participants of the workshop are hopeful it will happen. Ongoing education efforts like those implemented during this project will also be vital to maintaining a community of practice that can reduce climate risk and increase resiliency in the Caribbean’s water sector. Hopefully more bridges will be left standing.

This project and story are made possible by the support of the American People through a partnership funded by the U.S. Department of State’s (DoS) Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination as part of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA). The funding is managed by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Higher Education for Development (HED). The contents are the sole responsibility of IRI and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the U.S. Government.

Photos and videos by Elisabeth Gawthrop. See our Flickr page for more photos from the June 2015 CariCOF and water managers workshop.