People power: How citizen science is building climate resilience in South Asia

People power: How citizen science is building climate resilience in South Asia

By Uma Pal

Climate change threatens to push back development and growth in the already vulnerable South Asian region. Action to build resilience of human and natural systems needs to be taken urgently and at an unprecedented scale. Diverse and extensive ecosystems, climates and socio-economic features in the region make it a challenge to collect adequate data and conduct research on the impacts of climate change. Citizen science can be a useful tool for mitigating this challenge and enabling more comprehensive research and resilience building initiatives both at the individual level and at scale.

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Earth Challenge 2020 is being launched as the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign. This campaign is expected to engage citizens from across the world to collect and aggregate information on air quality, water quality, biodiversity, pollution and human health, and leverage it to influence policy decisions and action. Citizen science is widely recognised as an important approach, especially in the field of climate resilience, for raising awareness, bridging data and capacity gaps and influencing governance through actively engaging civil society in research and monitoring.

Citizen science approaches can bring scientists and communities closer, bridge the gap between research and uptake and build capacity of communities to tackle the impacts of climate change. Citizen science is essentially participatory in nature, which means that citizen scientists are actively involved through the process of collecting information, designing measures which help build their resilience and monitoring governance systems. Therefore, such initiatives can lend more rigour to or can be an entry point for broader adaptation spectrums such as community-based adaptation, climate resilient agriculture and climate resilient water management.

This is of relevance, especially in South Asia, where lives of the most vulnerable people are integrally linked to natural resources. For example, 60 percent of agricultural land in South Asia is rainfed. Governments in South Asian countries are already implementing participatory natural resource management initiatives such as the watershed development programmes across India by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, a government owned development financial institution. Along with ensuring active participation of communities in conservation and development activities, a targeted component of community led information collection and interpretation can further enhance their ability to perceive risks and help build a broader evidence base.

People-powered science is already underway in South Asia

In South Asia, citizen science approaches have started gaining momentum and are on their way to becoming an important component of resilience research and action. While targeted citizen science initiatives are still at a nascent stage in South Asia, the region has a significant pool of traditional and experiential knowledge which can be organised for collecting, analysing and sharing localised information.

The region is highly vulnerable to climate change due to diverse climates, existing socio-economic vulnerabilities and dependence of a large section of the population on agriculture and natural resources-based livelihoods. People working in agriculture or fishing, who are on the frontlines of climate change, can be trained to collect valuable information on variability and adaptation options for their areas. This implies that these communities bring with them years of knowledge and experience which are useful not just for collecting data but also for situating climate risks and resilience building initiatives within their own contexts.

In order to bring together scientific assessments and local knowledge on climate change in northeast Bangladesh, the Transforming Climate Knowledge with and for Society (TRACKS) project, coordinated by the University of Bergen, adopted a citizen science approach. This entailed a collaboration between scientists and locals to identify new methods of collecting climate information, especially in the absence of high-resolution data or accurate meteorological information. It was observed that many citizen scientists could make accurate predictions by combining information from various sources such as weather forecasts, temperature and humidity gauges installed at their homes and their localised observations. The project also built capacity amongst citizen scientists so they can accurately interpret different sets of accessible data and use them to make more informed decisions across the agricultural value chain. 

Citizen science initiatives are not limited to those whose livelihoods are directly linked to the climate. Based on the context and nature of information collection, any concerned citizen or civil society organisation can be a part of such initiatives. For example, SeasonWatch, a citizen science initiative, has been collecting data on the seasonal phases of common trees across India to gauge the impact of seasonal shifts. The initiative intends to corroborate anecdotal evidence with crowd sourced data and while anyone can participate in data collection, the programme focuses on schools as its volunteer base to enhance environmental awareness among youth.     

The outlook for citizen science

Citizen science is still new in South Asia and while some initiatives in the region are creating pools of vital information on biodiversity and ecosystems, this approach has not yet been taken up widely. This poses challenges in terms of lack of scalability and reach yet brings opportunities in terms of the new ways in which citizen science can be organised and tailored for the adaptation space in the region. Steps that can lead the way forward for citizen science initiatives in South Asia include:

  • raising awareness of communities and active citizen scientists on the impacts of climate change, building their capacity to collect, read and interpret localised data,
  • organising citizen scientists and linking them to natural and social scientists working in the field,
  • establishing long lasting relationships between citizen scientists and governing institutions to ensure that their research and findings inform policies and action,
  • enabling citizen scientists to hold governing institutions accountable, and
  • building a robust base for monitoring and evaluating the impact of citizen science on existing bodies of research and governance.

Citizen science offers great potential to contribute to our understanding of how to build resilience to climate impacts, especially in areas where climate and socio-economic data is scarce. Support for such programmes could also represent good value for money, and act to increase overall awareness and understanding of climate change and its impacts.


Coverphoto by Wonderlane on Unsplash.

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