Movies that save lives

More intense and more frequent floods, droughts and storms generated by the unfolding impact of climate change are hitting millions of people, especially in rural areas in developing countries, yet many are unaware of the growing danger because climate change is hard to understand, and even fewer are prepared to deal with it.

On the other hand, humanitarian organizations and governments have piloted several successful projects to help vulnerable rural farmers adapt to a future characterised by bad-tempered weather.

Pablo Suarez, associate director of the Hague-based International Red Cross and Red Crescent Climate Centre, commented in an article that it was not "feasible to dispatch technical experts to every location with poor people threatened by climate risks".

During a workshop in Mozambique some years ago the Red Cross discovered that small-scale farmers were highly receptive to audiovisual presentations showing other small-scale farmers applying solutions and adapting to similar conditions.

In 2000 the Mozambican farmers were affected by devastating floods that killed 700 people, followed by two dry spells that ravaged their crops.

The Red Cross told the farmers about climate change, but they were not entirely convinced. "Like everybody else, I thought it was God punishing us, or that the ancestors were angry ... and we can't do much about it," said one of the women farmers at the workshop.

The Red Cross then played a video of a similar workshop in a flood-prone shantytown in Argentina. "But now in the film I see that white women at the other end of the world have the same problem we have! So maybe it is true that the global rainfall is changing, and ... I can do something about it." She is now considering growing crops more suited to changing weather patterns.

Three years ago, the Red Cross began toying with the idea of using participatory video - in which a group or community makes a film based on their experiences - as a tool to inform people of climate risks and how to prepare for them.

''Video tools can be fantastic for reaching more targeted audiences, and to explain more complex issues that can benefit from the combination of audio and visual means''

"Participatory video establishes trust and treats local knowledge with respect, and is increasingly used in community development and anthropological research," wrote Suarez in the article he co-authored with six other researchers.

The effort sought to "create spaces for transformation by providing a practice of looking 'alongside' rather than 'at' research subjects," the researchers noted.

Around that time, Fernanda Baumhardt, a communication specialist based in Brazil, was struck by the same thought. "Every person is naturally resilient and often they don't realize that; using the video, I wanted to help rural communities shape their natural resilience through film, and then share it with other communities."

Making the film

She also wanted to measure the effectiveness of the tool scientifically. She and the Red Cross came together in Mphunga village in Malawi's central Salima district, one of the areas most vulnerable to droughts and floods.

After a series of workshops on working with filmmaking equipment, the villagers were ready to make a short video about their response to floods, and measures to reduce the impact of shocks: they built houses from reeds, which could be moved during floods, and planted reeds on the river bank to prevent water damage and decrease siltation in the river.

Adaptation to Climate Change by Mphunga Villagers

Watch larger version in YouTube

After the film was made, the villagers analyzed what was being done differently as a result of climate change and decided on six key adaptation messages - based partly on local knowledge and partly on what was being practiced elsewhere - to be included in another film that would be shown in neighbouring villages.

The message

Adaptation measures included crop diversification - planting more drought-tolerant food crops, like cassava, rather than maize; irrigation - the neighbouring village of Kasache used treadle pumps to irrigate their fields rather than depending only on rainfall.

Mphunga residents learnt that women in Bangladesh raised ducks rather than chickens because they were able to float during floods and survive, and encouraged other villagers to do the same.

Planting grass slowed down the flow of floodwater; storing grains in bags rather than granaries made it easier to relocate during floods; blowing a whistle to alert people about approaching floods could save lives, livestock, food and belongings.

After the film was screened on a laptop computer in the five neighbouring villages, Baumhardt found almost all the people understood the concept of climate change and more than half were willing to make changes to adapt.

"Video tools can be fantastic for reaching more targeted audiences, and to explain more complex issues that can benefit from the combination of audio and visual means," Suarez told IRIN.

He pointed out its advantage over radio. "Radio is good for real-time, widespread distribution of data (for example, when a cyclone is about to hit a village or region) ... but while it can be utilized for broader capacity building efforts, the audio-only channel is very limiting."

The project overcame various stumbling blocks: the film had to be shot in the local language, so they needed a project translator with very good communication skills; power was another major problem. Nevertheless, the Red Cross is now looking at similar projects in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Baumhardt hopes to get communities to share their adaptation knowledge across national boundaries and even continents. "The Himalayan shepherds and the Andean Quechuas might have a lot to say amongst themselves - and it only starts with one."