Water resource planning is getting more complicated thanks to the unpredictability of rainfall and extreme weather events caused by climate change. Climate services – the production and delivery of high-quality climate data – are gaining traction in helping planners and others deal with climate variability and adopt adaptation measures to reduce potential loss. By having access to better information, such as weather forecasting, users should be able to make better decisions when faced with risk and uncertainty. Who, however, has access to these services, and who has the power to make decisions using the information?

These questions were raised while assessing user’s needs and accessibility to a drought forecasting tool developed by SERVIR-Mekong, a joint initiative between USAID and NASA that applies geospatial technologies for development and climate change adaptation in the Lower Mekong countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Answering these questions is crucial to understanding how users, particularly farmers, can be supported to use climate data to plan their livelihoods and coping strategies, and how power dynamics among potential users might prevent certain groups from accessing and making use of the service. Without this understanding, the use of data might support the agendas of more powerful user groups at the risk of heightening vulnerabilities for less powerful groups and reinforcing gender and social inequalities.

Addressing the power dynamics in climate services

An SEI Asia assessment took place in Ninh Thuận province in Vietnam, an arid area with a nine-month long dry season. From 2013 to 2016 the province was stricken by a prolonged drought that severely affected agricultural production and the livelihoods of local communities. To cope with increasing water scarcity, the province aims to shift from paddy rice production, the predominant and traditional food crop, into less water intensive and commercial crops such as mung beans, fruit trees and vegetables.

The crop restructuring strategy significantly influences the livelihoods and wellbeing of different groups of local farmers. Beans are less productive in the province’s dry climate and require more nutrient inputs and labour. Shifting precipitation in the province has also led to crop losses. Poorer households, often belonging to the Raglai ethnic minority, also face financial difficulties in absorbing the costs of making these cropping changes. Down-stream farmers that are targeted by the strategy in particular are negatively affected. When they refuse to stop producing rice, they have little negotiating power if water allocation is suspended. Water planning is also gendered in many ways, restricting decision-making power for women even further. Policy makers and many farmers perceive irrigation as a male domain, and women are consequently largely left out of local water planning processes.

Despite the intention of using drought forecasts for improving farmers’ adaptability, the farmers do not have access to SERVIR’s drought-forecasting service. Concurrently, SERVIR-Mekong’s drought forecasting tool has been designed to support male dominated technical agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Social agencies such as the Department of Health, Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, and the Vietnam Women’s Union that are more aware of the gendered and social impacts of drought play no role in water planning. However, they are heavily involved in responding to the impacts of drought and should therefore be considered as potential users of the tool.

Ensuring equal benefits

The top-down water planning process strongly influences the outcomes of SERVIR-Mekong’s drought-forecasting tool for both women and men farmers and social agencies that often are not able to make their own decisions in terms of livelihoods and climate change coping strategies. Consequently, the tool feeds into existing power structures, benefiting policy makers from technical agencies that tend to side-line gender and social equality issues. It additionally increases local farmers’ dependency on administrative instruction, resulting in a tool with little impact on improving their adaptability to disastrous climatic events.

Improving the tool’s application for a wider and more diverse user group will require local farmers to be planners and decision-makers for their own livelihoods, in addition to climate services that are designed within their local and institutional contexts. In Ninh Thuận, this includes considering the experiences of different user groups with the top-down planning model and the resulting power dynamics. Factors such as gender, ethnicity, age, and location are all important, and will require different pathways for empowerment.

More information

Additional information about the gender sensitive needs assessment is available on the SERVIR-Mekong website. A full report with concrete recommendations from the needs assessment will be published shortly.