Bridging the digital divide will save our planet

By Benjamin Larroquette and Reina Otsuka

Article originally published on IPS News

Data, analysis and information are essential building blocks in our race to save humanity from the clear and present risks posed by the climate crisis.

We are headed on a crash course with oblivion and we need take definitive and far-reaching action if we are going to protect our people and our planet from the devastating impacts of rising seas, spiking temperatures, extreme weather and other climate impacts that are derailing human, social and economic development worldwide.

The only problem is that we live in a world of digital haves and have nots. Simply put, we must bridge the digital divide and we must build more effective and actionable climate risk assessments if we are going to save humanity from the truly existential risk of this vast and complicated crisis.

Climate risk assessments will future-proof investments for the next 30 years and provide the evidence we need to achieve the targets for low-carbon climate-resilient development outlined in the Paris Agreement.

And while we are making progress in improving our ability to model climate change, there are still large gaps in the overlay of vulnerability, environmental and weather data that hinder our ability to accurately assess future risks and build effective models at the local, regional and global levels.

It’s almost like we are flying blind into a Category 5 hurricane. We simply don’t have enough data to reliably predict, plan and process the terrabytes of information needed to accurately map out the vastly complicated scenarios that a changing climate brings to everything from agriculture to transportation to healthcare.

It’s a massive challenge. Take a look at our weather monitoring capabilities. In Africa,  just 26 percent of weather monitoring stations met WMO reporting requirements as of 2019.

Across the developing world, climate data is still being recorded by hand. These data sets go back 30 plus years. But with no way to validate its veracity, it offers very little to aid us as we work to clearly map and plan for various climate scenarios.

Without this collective record, and the digital firing power needed to ensure we are crunching these numbers according to the Four Vs of Big Data – volume, variety, velocity and veracity – it becomes increasingly difficult to model precipitation, flood risk, and even rising seas. 

Our failure to accurately capture and analyze climate and weather data is putting lives at risk and derailing development gains.

According to the WMO, “around 108 million people required help from the international humanitarian system as a result of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires in 2018. By 2030, it is estimated that this number could increase by almost 50 percent at a cost of around US$20 billion a year. The situation is particularly acute in small island developing states (SIDs) and least developed countries (LDCs). Since 1970, SIDS have lost US$153 billion due to weather, climate and water related hazards – a significant amount given that the average GDP for SIDS is US$13.7 billion.  Meanwhile, 1.4 million people (70 percent of the total deaths) in LDCs lost their lives due to weather, climate and water related hazards in that time period.”

Bridging the digital divide

Progress is underway. In Malawi, data sets dating back decades are now being digitized, hydromet stations are sending live actionable data via the cloud, and public-private partnerships are allowing for increased analysis of climate data. This means poor rural farmers can improve profits and change their practices to adapt to new climate scenarios. It means the government can future proof large infrastructure investments. It means fishers know when it’s not safe to head out.

To reach the last mile, farmers are being trained using the PICSA approach through the GCF-financed project in Malawi. This innovative approach aims to help farmers to make informed decisions based on accurate, location-specific climate and weather information, including the adoption of locally relevant crop, livestock and livelihood options. By building participatory tools for decision making, PICSA puts sustainability and locally-driven decision making front and center.

In Tuvalu, new data is being collected via state-of-the-art LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, technology, to better understand the topography a unique weather patterns of the country’s atoll islands. This will improve the design and implementation of ecosystem-based adaptation approaches and improve more effective climate vulnerability mapping.

In Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Zambia and other sub-Saharan African nations, low-cost automatic weather stations are being deployed to improve the collection of localized data, private-sector partnerships are improving the capture and analysis information, and vulnerable communities are benefiting from actionable early warnings and climate information.

Governments in Asia and the Pacific are making important steps in integrating data analysis into ecosystem-based adaptation approaches to proactively respond to and plan for multiple vulnerabilities. In the Philippines combined mangrove and coastal ecosystem impact is being assessed to protect vulnerable cities. In Viet Nam, geospatial assessment of flood impact is protecting rural infrastructure.

And while large gaps still exist, and more funding is needed, there are ways to apply low-tech solutions with high-tech know-how to leap-frog technologies and apply a new vision for weather and climate services.

The same way Africa skipped providing landlines and now can rely on mobile phones, so too can they use mobile networks to collect and share information, satellite and lightning data can improve cross-border information sharing, rainfade technology can be applied to improve weather forecasts, automated weather stations can be installed on cell-phone towers to ensure energy, security and transmission of information. With far reaching mobile connection, we can now reach the most remote farmers with important climate information and agricultural advisories. In Zambia agro-meteorological advisories are being delivered through community radio, SMS and town hall meetings in a dozen local languages, putting actionable information at the fingertips of vulnerable farmers. Nearly 90 percent of least developed countries and small island developing states have identified early warning systems as a top priority in their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, many still lack the necessary capacity and financial investment to make these a reality.

The persistent question: How can we strengthen innovation to serve the world’s most vulnerable communities and reach the last mile? And how can we build up local innovations and solutions that cater to the specific needs and contextual constraints of these groups, instead of further widening the gaps between the digital haves and have-nots?

By bringing together resources and know-how from the private sector, new technologies and new ways of working, there is a chance to bridge the digital divide and pave the way for a climate-resilient future.

Bridging this unjust and unfair divide will support us in ending hunger and poverty worldwide and will provide the foundation on which to launch our global response to the climate crisis.

About the authors

Benjamin Larroquette is a Regional Technical Advisor for UNDP’s Nature, Climate and Energy team, with a focus on climate information, early warning systems and climate change adaptation.

Reina Otsuka, a Digital Innovation Specialist for UNDP’s Nature Climate and Energy team, is passionate about facilitating innovation processes and the application of digital technologies for sustainable development.

Last Updated: 26 May 2021