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Mobile predictions aids India's fishing communities

24 December 2009

Sundaramoorthy Olaganathan and Vijay Pratap Singh Aditya

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A unique mobile weather forecast service is helping farmers and fishermen decide when to plant, water and harvest their crops and fish. These accurate and handy forecasts have boosted the profits of many fishermen in south India.

The Neivilakku-Nedunkulam hamlet in Tamil Nadu held one of its customary village meetings on a bright morning this May. The meeting was called to decide what to do with the left-over fish in the village's common tank - a shared pond used for irrigation.

Image credits: Food for Thought/ Fishermen in India

The village tank is often the only irrigation source in the rain-fed Ramnad plains in southern India. The harvest that season was over and the left-over water used for cattle was evaporating due to the summer heat so the fish stock had to be harvested.

When the rain water in the tank lasts more than eight months, it fills with more fish than the 50-house village can consume. It usually auctions the remaining fish and uses the proceeds for village festivals and repairs on the tank.

The village decided it was ready to auction the fish and the message was sent to all potential bidders by word of mouth with the date, time and venue of the auction. Bidders arrived and waded through the tank to make their own assessments of the fish stock using their hands and feet. Using their estimates, they bid.

The auction winner made a partial payment as an advance with a promise to pay the rest after the first catch. He then pumped out much of the water from the common tank using a diesel generator and used a net to catch some of the fish. The first batch of fish was caught and sold to waiting fish mongers. The money collected was used to pay the remaining amount owed to the village. The subsequent catch was to be the auction-winners profit.

However, the second day saw an unexpected development. It rained, boosting the auction winner's expenses as it became more costly to drain the tank. The auction winner had to renegotiate to ensure he still made a profit. The village would either have to return the money with deductions for the fish caught or allow an extra harvest to offset the additional expense of running the diesel generator to drain the tank again.

The villagers gathered a second time to decide on the course of action. As usual, the traditional village leader participated in the meeting, which was presided over by the council president, and opinions were sought.

Most thought it would be best to wait a few days for the water to seep into the ground before the auction winner went for his a second catch. The auction winner was amenable to either getting his money back or using the extended period of time for fishing.

At that moment, Village Council President K. Chandramohan's cellphone received a text message. The SMS message contained a weather forecast provided by Ekgaon Technologies' Climate and Weather Information Systems Unit in partnership with Tamil Nadu Agriculture University.

Image credits: The Wall Street Journal/ SMS message contained a weather forecast in South India

The forecast provided weather information, including temperature, wind speed, humidity and rainfall for the village's region. It predicted four days of heavy rains.

The president told the assembly the forecast and everyone laughed. The villagers could not believe that it would rain for four days as it was not the rainy season and there were no signs of rain.

Still, the president recommended it would be better if the money was returned to the auction winner and another auction be held when the rain subsided. He trusted the forecast and figured the fish population would increase with the water level in the tank and the village could get a better return from a second auction. Still, the council members overruled him and decided to keep the money and wait for a few more days.

That evening heavy rains came from the south making draining the common tank almost impossible.

The villagers couldn't believe the accuracy of the forecast. They agreed to return the money to the auction winner without any deduction. The auction winner managed to sell some fish and this profit was sufficient to cover the expense of renting and transporting the generator.

Having seen the power of the SMS forecast, the villagers wanted to test its accuracy further. The villagers were amazed when the SMS predictions continued to come true, a pleasant contrasts to the often unreliable weather bulletins on the radio and television and in the local almanac.

The farmers were also surprised to see that the useful forecasts came from their mobile phones, a device not normally used to access agricultural information.

As more villagers asked about the service, the village leader told them about the unique service model of Ekgaon and the agricultural university. He explained that the forecasts were more precise and were available anytime for a cost farmers could afford.

While the alert service was intended to help farmers to decide when to plant, water and harvest their crops, in Nedungulam it had found one more use in helping the village decide when to harvest their fish.

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