Looking ahead: Digital tools for natural resource management

In March of this year, world leaders attending the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Climate and Sustainable Development were warned that just over one decade is all that remains to stop irreversible damage from climate change. The meeting highlighted that no country or community is immune to climate-related devastation, and the world’s poorest nations are the first to suffer and the hardest hit.

For over three years I’ve been leading the Mobile for Development team’s research on Digital Identity, and have been surprised to see that in many of the places where we work, even people’s identity-related needs are being shaped by climate change. Our 2019 case study on Identity and Urban Poor draws attention to Maasai youth in Kenya, 97 per cent of whom have reportedly moved to urban centres after losing livestock to famine or drought. In Sri Lanka, we’ve met numerous farmers who lamented the ever-changing weather patterns that are making it difficult to predict rainfall or plan crop cycles, and causing traditional and inherited knowledge about farming to lose its practical value. We believe that digital identity services such as ‘economic IDs’ could one day offer a lifeline for rural-urban migrants or smallholder farmers impacted by climate change – if they can be designed to provide accurate and hyper-localised weather forecasts, targeted advice on how to migrate safely or transition to more rain-resistant crops, or facilitate access to financial services such as government subsidies or crop insurance.

While we continue to work with partners to turn economic ID concepts into a reality, however, climate change is actively unravelling decades of development progress. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has echoed calls for 2019 to be ‘a year of climate action at all levels’, demanding that today’s leaders address this global emergency ‘with ambition and urgency’. For that reason, I’m thrilled to be joining the GSMA’s new CleanTech programme, which will be conducting research, brokering partnerships and working on-the-ground to investigate how new and emerging technologies can support the transition to more resilient, equitable and decarbonized societies.

One area that will be of particular interest to our team is the role that digital technology can play to support natural resource management. Natural capital such as forests, wetlands and marine resources provide local communities with economic, social and cultural benefits, and UNDP has stated that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are essential for improving and sustaining human wellbeing. FAO studies have shown that around 40 per cent of the rural extreme poor – equivalent to around 250 million people – live in forest and savannah areas where access to forest products, goods and services is critical to livelihoods and household resilience. When developed and applied in a customisable and scalable way, digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and IoT – combined with the expansion of mobile coverage and mobile money adoption – could help developing countries, and local community members themselves, manage natural resources in a way that is more efficient, impactful and transparent.

For instance, digital tools could be used to ensure that local communities are actively engaged in conservation efforts. In Uganda, where deforestation is understood to be contributing more than a third (37 per cent) of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, new projects are testing whether community-led monitoring and data collection activities can help decrease forest usage, establish new social norms around conservation, and maximise the salience and awareness of forest stocks and harvesting levels. Similar community-led conservation projects have resulted in the restoration of 500,000 hectares of woodland in Tanzania (an total area that is roughly three times the size of Greater London), and the development of a multimillion-dollar wildlife industry in Namibia.

Mobile could also support broader adoption of payments for ecosystem services (PES) – a variety of market-based schemes that allow the institutions that benefit most from clean water, healthy forests and flood regulation to pay for these natural resources to be maintained and managed. In other words, a PES could help ensure that local communities benefitted more from protecting neighbouring forests than from cutting them down. PES is quickly becoming a world-wide practice: there are now over 550 active PES programmes in both developed and developing countries, with US$36-42 billion in annual transactions. Digital technology is well-positioned to support the monitoring, communication and payment processes that are essential to PES schemes – through IoT, mobile communication channels and digital payments – and can help further reduce the cost and increase the transparency of conservation and regeneration efforts.

While there is a growing body of evidence that digital technologies have the potential to improve natural resource management activities in developing countries, current efforts remain fragmented and largely un-tested. Furthermore, there are certain areas of importance that are currently under-researched, particularly the specific incentives, challenges, preferences and benefits that all stakeholders (e.g. government, public and private-sector institutions and individuals) will encounter when engaging with PES. There is also a need to raise awareness and market the benefits of natural resource management; to document the role of the private sector, especially mobile, in supporting conservation efforts; and to develop a pathway for integrating natural resource management with the broader sustainable development agenda.

There is a clear need for governments, the development community, and the mobile industry to work together to develop and implement the digital tools that will help address these, and many other, climate-related challenges. The GSMA CleanTech team is committed to identifying innovation, facilitating scale, and replicating best-practice models in the new ‘Clean Tech’ space. Our team will broker partnerships across industries and sectors, create best practices, and develop a common narrative to support advocacy efforts required to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development agenda.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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