Research Communications

Geographers to study climate change adaptation in East Africa 

NSF grant supports innovative approach to community-based environmental research

ATHENS, Ohio (Feb. 11, 2010) — Environmental experts fear that climate change—rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns—could have a devastating impact on agricultural and pastoral communities in Africa. An innovative research project led by Ohio University geographers uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to draw on the local knowledge of these rural societies, in an effort to explore options for community-based adaptation to climate change.

Ohio University geographer Thomas Smucker and colleagues received a $571,859 grant from the National Science Foundation to support the participatory research project. Communities in Northern Tanzania will work with the research team to collect information on rural livelihoods and environmental management.

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Ohio University geographer Elizabeth Wangui conducts field work in the Maasai community in northern Tanzania.
Photo courtesy of Thomas Smucker.


The project will use the latest mapping technologies and develop a GIS for integrating field data and climate change projections. GIS-based analysis will enable the team to better assess future climate stresses and ways local communities can adapt to them.   

The researchers hope that community organizations will learn the benefits of using GIS to assess adaptation options in East Africa, which has a heavy concentration of agricultural and pastoral communities vulnerable to drought.

“One goal of the project is to empower local civil society organizations to interact and collaborate with local government entities,” said Smucker, a visiting assistant professor of geography and director of the International Development Studies Program at Ohio University. “Not only does this create layers of information that can help us to understand what’s going on, but it can further mobilize critical thinking within the community.”

The researchers want to avoid the pitfalls of many past development projects in Africa in which outside experts have implemented unsustainable or inappropriate projects for local communities, Smucker noted.

GIS, a computer system that analyzes geographic information and creates maps, traditionally has been used mainly by experts, explains co-investigator Daniel Weiner, a geography professor and executive director of Ohio University’s Center for International Studies. Participatory GIS (PGIS) expands the conventional scope of GIS by incorporating local knowledge and perceptions into the program. For example, in a related project in South Africa, community input created a more accurate, detailed understanding of soil quality than would have been possible using the conventional data collection methods used by GIS experts, he said.

“There is a lot of debate going on about environmental and climate change in general, and we seem overly reliant on computer models for information,” Weiner said. “Local communities have a lot of knowledge about this issue that could be helpful in interpreting data coming out of the models.” 

The project brings together the diverse expertise of scholars at various universities—Ohio University, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, University of Florida, the University of Dar es Salaam, Sokoine University of Agriculture, the Center for Energy, Environment, Science and Technology and the LINKS Trust—that include geospatial techniques, cartography and human-environment analysis. 

In addition to Smucker and Weiner’s past work in East Africa, the project builds on the work of Ohio University geographer and co-investigator Elizabeth Wangui, who has studied gender and pastoralist development in the region. Gaurav Sinha’s expertise in Geographic Information Science (GIScience) will help the team incorporate qualitative data on local knowledge systems into the GIS. Cartographer Margaret Pearce’s work on geovisualization and indigenous cartographies will inform the production of maps derived from the GIS for use in community forums.

The new National Science Foundation grant also will support graduate assistantships and field research for three geography graduate students.

The team will travel to Tanzania this summer to conduct field research with Tanzanian colleagues. The field work will include a household survey and collaboration with community-based organizations whose activities address climate-sensitive aspects of livelihood and rural development, such as soil/water conservation groups and beekeeping associations. Additionally, the research team hopes to learn how communities perceive, discuss and anticipate climate change.

Next, the geographers will work with community organizations to design local field research activities that create additional data layers in the PGIS. This might include mapping land use change or changes in use and management of resources in livestock grazing and fuel wood collection areas. In the third year of the project, the research team will explore ways that PGIS can be used for proactive planning that reduces peoples’ vulnerability to new patterns of climatic variability associated with global climate change. 

The project will result in maps the community can use to document climate change impacts over time. An online version of the PGIS and curriculum development workshops will contribute to modules that will be integrated into university courses in Tanzania and the United States, Smucker added. 

Contacts: Thomas Smucker, (740) 593-1832, smucker@ohio.edu; Daniel Weiner, (740) 593-1889, weinerd1@ohio.edu;Director of Research Communications Andrea Gibson, (740) 597-2166, gibsona@ohio.edu.