Climate Services Ecosystems in times of COVID-19

Faced with the greatest public health crisis of our time, people must work together and learn from each other to overcome the complex challenges facing our communities, countries, and the world. Climate-related hazards are one of those challenges; they exacerbate already challenging public health conditions and impact not just people, but also the infrastructure, trade, and community support on which society depends. Through “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow” (ACToday), the first of Columbia University’s Columbia World Projects, proactive interactions in six developing countries help identify and create the local climate service ecosystems needed to address food security, agricultural sustainability, and nutrition goals.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, such as the current global pandemic of COVID-19, the preparation for climate impacts often turns toward reaction and response. However, climate risks remain unabated despite the COVID crisis; systems that make it easier for already-stressed decision-makers to understand and manage climate risks – and opportunities – are critical. Together, society must prepare for and manage the challenges that it can anticipate in order to be more resilient to those it cannot, and climate services ecosystems can help in this regard.



ACToday was launched in 2017 and has been supporting decision-makers to combat hunger in six developing countries that are particularly dependent on agriculture and vulnerable to the effects of climate variability and change: Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Senegal, and Vietnam. Led by Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), and in close collaboration with national and international organizations, ACToday strengthens local climate services to meet national needs in the areas of food security, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and beyond.

Collectively, climate services increase the resilience of vulnerable countries to floods, droughts and other climate-related risks [Vaughan and Dessai, 2014; Vaughan et al, 2017]. Climate services engage a range of expert and stakeholder communities to co-produce and tailor information to specific decision‐making contexts, which builds the capacity of all involved, supports economic development, and allows governments to adapt to climate change and variability. Climate services typically address the climate-related needs of the present to near-term future through a better understanding of climate risks, as well as the actions that can be taken to prepare, plan, and thrive, especially in times of crises. Following the language of “Four Pillars of Climate Services” (Figure 1), the importance of good-quality climate information (generation) put into sectoral terms (translation) are both well recognized as essential features of effective climate services. The translated information then needs to be communicated/disseminated to the intended beneficiaries (transfer) in an appropriate format and level of quality to facilitate effective use. The format and quality also dictate use. In order to support appropriate use, the effective co-development and transfer of information, products, and tools for decision-makers must remain a high priority for subnational, national and international climate services.

Effective climate services require co-development to ensure that limited resources are dedicated to bringing the most promising solutions to the most pressing needs. Hence, after concrete demands are identified with partners, ACToday catalyzes the generation, translation, transfer and use of tailored tools to support Sustainable Development Goal #2: Zero Hunger. Some of the co-developed climate services involve approaches such as:

  • The Enhancing National Climate Services (ENACTS) initiative to provide context to climate-related hazards via a better understanding of past and present climate conditions in the countries, through the use of quality-controlled, high-resolution climate data [Dinku et al., 2017, Nyade et al., 2012; Ouedraogo et al. 2018]
  • Next Generation of climate forecasts (NextGen), using tools such as IRI’s Climate Predictability Tool (CPT) to provide objective, tailored predictions at multiple timescales, including sub-seasonal and seasonal, in a variety of formats and for different variables of interest, such as rainfall, temperatures, crop yields, vegetation health indices, acute undernutrition and others [Gonzalez Romero et al., 2020; Mason et al., 2020; Muñoz et al., 2019, 2020; Pons et al., 2020]
  • Local Technical Agroclimatic Committees (Mesas Técnicas Agroclimáticas (MTAs), in Latin America), two-way discussion spaces between decision-makers and national meteorological services to assess current climate conditions, analyze forecasts and produce targeted recommendations for different cropping systems, to reduce climate-related risks [Loboguerrero et al., 2018; Giraldo et al., 2020]
  • AclímateColombia: a climate services platform for agriculture that facilitates generation, translation, and transfer of ACToday-enabled, state-of-the-art NextGen forecasts to deliver agricultural advisory for multiple crops and locations in Colombia and Ethiopia [Sotelo et al., 2020; Fernandes et al., 2020]
  • Complementary financial instruments, such as index-based insurance and forecast-based financing, to help transfer climate-related financial risks.
The Four Pillars of Climate Services: generation, translation, transfer and use

Figure 1. The Four Pillars of Climate Services: generation, translation, transfer and use. Credits: IRI

Through ACToday and its partners, these and other climate services are often discussed in Climate Outlook Fora around the world (e.g., CACOF, CariCOF, SASCOF, GHACOF).

An in-country ACToday Academy for Climate Services in Bangladesh, with targeted educational and capacity building efforts for strengthening foundational climate knowledge

An in-country ACToday Academy for Climate Services in Bangladesh, with targeted educational and capacity building efforts for strengthening foundational climate knowledge

Most of the climate services co-generated through ACToday in the different countries use the IRI’s Data Library [Blummenthal et al., 2014], a powerful infrastructure that permits the users to access, visualize and perform calculations on a wide variety of datasets. Results are then communicated visually through continuously updated websites called Maprooms, where the information is tailored to target audiences and thus help to ensure that understandable and usable information are generated with the climate services.

To guarantee the long-term sustainability of these initiatives during and after the project, ACToday initiated a series of in-country Climate Services Academies with targeted educational and capacity building efforts for strengthening foundational climate knowledge (see two examples online in Bangladesh and Colombia). The Academies also support the development of the National Frameworks for Climate Services (NFCS) in the six countries. Furthermore, ACToday has implemented a Monitoring and Evaluation strategy to facilitate reproducibility and scalability of these and other solutions into different regions and countries.

Support to local, national and international partners as they build or strengthen their climate services is just a part of the puzzle. Non-climate-related hazards, such as market volatility, also play an important role when dealing with food security. Furthermore, climate services with a very limited focus, for example, the generation of climate forecasts for the sole purpose of crop-yield prediction in one region of a country, miss potential opportunities, as those same forecasts may be applicable to other socio-economic sectors. Accordingly, ACToday has strived to co-develop an ecosystem of climate services that can share common solutions across different sectors, and that can identify links to, and potential interactions with, non-climate-related solutions.


Climate-Services Ecosystems

Climate services (Figure 1) can offer a powerful set of synthesized data, tools and solutions to support decision-makers with the information they need. However, if implemented in isolation – or with only one purpose in mind – opportunities are missed, the service may not be sustained or may conflict with parallel efforts. Coordinated efforts are needed to avoid unproductive replication of efforts, recognizing that some redundancy is beneficial. A healthy overlap of interventions can lead to integration and sharing of climate services that are useful and valuable for multiple sectors. For example, the development of strategies that can target multiple timescales (e.g., using the “Ready-Set-Go” approach [Braman et al., 2013; Goddard et al., 2014]), have shown considerable benefits to local partners in the ACToday countries.

Climate-services ecosystems can be defined (slightly modifying the business-perspective definition of Vargo and Akaka (2012)) as relatively self-contained, self-adjusting systems of resource-integrating actors connected by shared institutional goals, and mutual-value creation through exchange of climate services. In other words, a climate services ecosystem involves interactions between different sectors sharing the same or similar climate services, which enhances resilience to crises, and lends efficiency and value by optimally orchestrating the available solutions. These ecosystems tend to be more robust to climate impacts than a collection of climate services focused on certain applications or just one sector, because shocks to one part of the ecosystem are redistributed and dampened through the entire network.

In line with the climate services ecosystems definition, ACToday has taken full advantage of the implementation of ENACTS, NextGen and the Academies, to mention a few. These solutions are available not only to the food security and agricultural sectors, but also to the water-resource management, health, energy, and disaster-risk reduction and management sectors. The presence of the climate-services ecosystems developed by ACToday is also helping the project countries to fight COVID-19-related impacts on society – as well as impacts in other sectors of society that depend on reliable climate information and climate-risk transfer mechanisms.


An unwelcome stressor: COVID-19

Food insecurity is not going away during the present COVID-19 pandemic; instead, the insecurity has worsened.

In Guatemala, ACToday supports the translation and use of climate information through the development of agroclimatic round tables

In Guatemala, ACToday supports the translation and use of climate information through the development of agroclimatic round tables (MTAs in Spanish), bringing climate services providers closer to farmers and other users.

The pandemic sparked fears of impending economic crisis and recession [Nicola et al., 2020]. The preventive measures to control the spread of the virus led to a reduced workforce across all economic sectors. In the agriculture sector, this health crisis led to a drop in commodity prices of up to 25% in some markets [WBG, 2020], which reduced income levels for farmers. Between 30% to 50% of farmers in the regions where ACToday is being implemented are experiencing lower income as well as less access to food and agricultural inputs [CCAFS, 2020]. Disruptions of labor inputs and supply chains, more strict border controls, trade restrictions, lower demand and exchange-rate pressure also impacted emerging markets and developing economies. For example, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in Central America, the reduction of remittances due to COVID-19 has made Central Americans more vulnerable to food insecurity and has put many at risk of extreme poverty [OCHA, 2020].

COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated society’s vulnerability, but those negative impacts can be offset, or at least lessened, through climate-services ecosystems. For example, NextGen climate forecasts are being used by Guatemala’s and Colombia’s MTAs to develop concrete recommendations for farmer associations, especially smallholder farmers, to guide the implementation of sound strategies during the present crisis (see some examples here). Guatemala, conjointly with the World Food Programme, is developing an index-based insurance program to provide a safety net for the most-impacted segments of the population. In Bangladesh, research on floods and training on index insurance are being developed to inform the creation and validation of flood-index products in a year in which the country is facing the biggest floods in the past decade.

ACToday in Vietnam

In Vietnam, ACToday works with international partners, leaders in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the meteorological service, to help modify policies and and practices to facilitate the use of climate services and decrease the impact on food security

Complementary forecast-based financing mechanisms (Figure 2 below) are also being explored in Guatemala’s Dry Corridor, to help distribute resources in preparation for adverse climate-related events, once critical quantitative thresholds are crossed in the forecast with a specified level of confidence. Some good news in this regard is that these interventions are unlikely to be needed this year, given the current la Niña conditions, expected to extend through the rest of 2020.

The NextGen seasonal forecast indicates that the postrera planting season is expected to receive above-normal rainfall in multiple locations of Central America, where staple crops are mainly rain-fed.

In Senegal, early communication of above-normal rainfall forecasts has given hope to many sectors to cope with the adverse effects of the pandemic and created a good “mindset” of investment in the farming community. In Vietnam, ACToday efforts with international partners, leaders in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the meteorological service, are helping modify policies and practices to facilitate the use of climate services and decrease the impact of the present pandemic on food security.

ACToday’s work to catalyze national climate services ecosystems has enabled other key sectors besides agriculture to take advantage of the climate services in use by local food-security and agriculture sectors. For example, NextGen forecasts are being used by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization and local health decision-makers in Central America, to identify the best course of action regarding the current dengue epidemic – the worst on record that is being exacerbated by COVID-19 and high levels of food insecurity in the region [Muñoz et al., 2020]. Similarly, in Colombia, NextGen rainfall forecasts are being used by the energy sector to decide whether the present offer of electricity is enough, or if the country will need to buy electricity in the international market to satisfy increased demand due to the extra time that the population is spending at home during COVID-19-related quarantine.


An example of a forecast-based financing product, being developed for Guatemala’s Dry Corridor

Figure 2. An example of a forecast-based financing product, being developed for Guatemala’s Dry Corridor. NextGen seasonal forecasts (left) are used along with past climate and environmental information to co-identify triggers (right) that can activate funding mechanisms to help farmers fight hunger.

In Bangladesh, the support provided to the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) on NextGen seasonal forecasts enabled BMD to keep generating forecasts during a situation of compound risks that included COVID-19, super cyclone Amphan – one of the strongest storms ever in the Bay of Bengal – and excessive monsoon rains which triggered severe flooding and landslides, affecting millions of people. Both the cyclone and the flood impacts led to a massive pre- and post-hazard mobilization of people and resources across sectors, and a drastically increased demand on BMD to keep providing information, despite limited access to their office due to COVID-19 restrictions.


Both the NextGen and ENACTS initiatives

Both the NextGen and ENACTS initiatives provide the foundation for climate services platforms that can facilitate the generation, translation, and transfer and use of climate information to deliver agricultural advisory for multiple crops and locations. Left: the official launch of NextGen implementation by Colombia's national meteorological service, IDEAM in 2019. Right: Food-security decision-makers receive training on ENACTS in Adama, Ethiopia, 2018.


Lessons learned and the way forward

An example of climate-services development is provided by ACToday, which works with national and international partners to address local needs for climate services in the areas of food security and agriculture. Co-development of these services has been central to the engagement, use and scalability of solutions amongst the project partners. In particular, targeted capacity building, availability and access to real-time observations, objective and calibrated forecasts, well-supported dissemination platforms and discussion forums, and financial instruments allow climate services to support stakeholder needs, even during a pandemic. Climate-services ecosystems are sprouting; new climate services networks are beginning to form around the ACToday work, pushed into existence through need and opportunity. Especially in developing countries, robust funding strategies are needed to continue supporting these services. Collaboration between the public and private sectors offers one avenue for building climate services ecosystems.

The ability to scale high-quality climate services, not just to other locations but to other sectors, and the ability for these climate-service networks to organize into ecosystems is a crucial ingredient to resilience in the face of climate variability and change. This approach will help society to understand, anticipate, and manage climate risks, and increase resilience to the many other challenges we will face, both known and unknown.



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