Drought management in India: hostage to climate information governance

While communities in India affected by climate change, and the agencies that support them, need access to short and long-term weather forecasts to plan their responses to increasingly erratic rainfall, the current climate information governance system stops this from happening. The system needs reworking.

Ritu Bharadwaj's picture Simon Addison's picture
Ritu Bharadwaj is senior researcher and Simon Addison is principal researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group
10 February 2021
Woman collects water from a well

Accurate weather information and good climate governance are essential for local Indian communities to adapt to new weather patterns caused by climate change (Photo: Knut-Erik Helle via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Drought in India is triggered not only by deficient rainfall but also by erratic rainfall: more days with higher rainfall, longer dry spells between heavy rainfall events, and delayed monsoons – a pattern that is becoming more frequent with climate change.

Local communities and national agencies need short-term, seasonal and long-term climate forecasts to help them prepare for, cope with and recover from drought. But the way climate information is managed in India presents challenges: people are not receiving the right data in the right way and at the right time to be able to understand, interpret and act on it.

Five principles for climate information good governance

Based on our research, we suggest this problem can be addressed by adopting five 'business unusual' principles for governing climate information:

1. Understand the current landscape of climate information – how it is collected and shared, by whom and at what frequency.

In India there is a strong history of climate data collection and monitoring, providing robust data for climate forecast and analysis.

There are pockets of great expertise, both individuals and institutions – the India Meteorological Department, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, National Institute of Hydrology, Indian Institute of Forest Management and Madhya Pradesh Council of Science and Technology. There have also been great advancements in geographic information services (GIS) and remote sensing.

But there is also a need for coordination and co‐exploration of climate information between experts and decision-makers. To ensure this, we invested effort in bringing together institutions generating and managing climate data, those undertaking climate data analysis, and government organisations and communities responsible for decision-making.

2. Adopt an approach of co-development of drought early warning and climate risk management approaches, tools and guidance with concerned government agencies and communities.

We brought on board 12 government institutions ranging from those involved in data generation, to those working on data analysis, to the final users of the data. We facilitated their interaction, providing them with support to enable them to produce these tools themselves.

This helped to embed these approaches, building capacity within their systems and supporting systematic approaches to help information and knowledge emerge and flow to the right people at the right time.

This process built understanding among the agencies that these modules are not a perfect model – they need to be revisited, revised and will evolve with a feedback loop from data users that allows for constant improvement.

3. Focus on proper communication of climate information. The limited usability of climate information emanates from its poor communication: the format in which it is made available, how it is made available and the capacity of the end users (both government agencies and community) to interpret and use it for decision-making.

Our efforts are directed towards bringing all key end users on board and trying to understand their needs around climate information. Then we can design the climate information systems according to these needs and requirements, and through a relevant communication strategy, enable users to undertake their own exploration and take decisions at local level.

4. Create a drought early monitoring, reporting and preparedness system. We are developing a concurrent monitoring and reporting mechanism that can provide Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) functionaries and communities with real-time information.

This will help them to understand when they are at risk of facing ‘drought’ and ‘drought-like situations’ based on the parameters outlined in the Indian Manual for Drought Management (PDF, 30mb).

In this way they can plan for contingency measures: labour budgeting under MGNREGS to provide wage employment to households in the event of loss of other sources of livelihoods or crop failure, for example. Or providing government officials with relevant information in case a severe category drought has to be announced and relief measures have to be set in motion.

5. Create a climate information and decision support module. Climate change is defined as a 'wicked problem' because of its uncertainty and complexity. But uncertainty does not mean inaction.

Beyond drought early warning systems, we are integrating climate information in the existing GIS-based planning framework of MGNREGS, so that the assets created under the scheme (such as water harvesting structures, soil and moisture conservation, plantation and so on) are fit for purpose under climate change conditions. This is being done by integrating both ‘top-down’ as well as ‘bottom up’ approaches.

A top-down approach includes assessing the cause-effect relationship between climate change projections and its impacts and risks. But as this kind of assessment does not provide enough information on who is vulnerable to these climate risks and how they can be addressed, we are covering this gap by complementing it with bottom-up approaches.

We are integrating this information through participatory processes, allowing communities to use their local knowledge in decision-making.

Reimagining climate information governance

These principles are drawn from IIED's research into the climate resilience potential of India's largest social protection scheme, the MGNREGS, as part of the UK-India collaborative Infrastructure for Climate Resilient Growth (ICRG) project.

While experience from MGNREGS is still emerging, our learning so far indicates the immense potential of reimagining climate data governance, management and communication for supporting climate resilience among the poorest and most vulnerable people in rural areas. But the greatest value of all would be in creating climate risk-informed early action and decision-making systems.

When it comes to coping with and recovering from climate hazards such as drought, early action has proved to be both more cost effective in supporting communities and, when it comes to it, the difference between a good life and surviving.