As Africa opens a climate summit, poor weather forecasting keeps the continent underprepared

Daily weather forecasts are taken for granted in much of the world. However, the majority of Africa’s 1.3 billion inhabitants have little to no awareness of the future. That can cause damage in the billions of dollars, which can be both fatal and expensive.

The first Africa Climate Summit begins on Monday in Kenya with the goal of highlighting the continent that will be most affected by climate change while making the fewest contributions to it. An urgent objective will be to make significant investments in Africa’s adaptation to climate change, particularly improved forecasting. The absence of data collecting, which influences decisions as important as when to plant and when to escape, is at the core of every topic on the agenda, from energy to agriculture.

China, India, and the United States put together are smaller than the whole African continent. However, a World Meteorological Organization database shows that there are just 37 radar facilities throughout Africa, despite the fact that these facilities are just as important as satellite data and surface monitoring for watching the weather.

According to Asaf Tzachor, a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Center for the Study of Existential Risk, “the continent as a whole is in a blind spot with regard to climate risk.” He and colleagues cautioned that by 2050, climate change will cost Africa more than $50 billion annually in an editorial for the journal Nature published in August. Africa’s population is anticipated to double by that time.

Key development decisions are impacted by the widespread incapability to monitor and predict the weather, according to their commentary: “There is no point investing in smallholder farms, for example, if floods are simply going to wash them away.”

Along with South Africa and Morocco, Kenya, which is hosting the climate summit, is one of the few nations in Africa thought to have a reasonably well-developed weather service. According to the national treasury, Kenya has set aside around $12 million this year for its meteorological department. In comparison, the U.S. National Weather Service requested $1.3 billion in funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

The 54-nation African continent’s immense expanse is largely unserviced and unwarned.

Africa has the least established land-based observation network of any continent, and it is in a worsening state, according to the WMO, although making just 5% of the world’s land area.

A “particularly serious issue,” according to a report published by the WMO last year, was the fact that due to a lack of financing, the number of observations made by atmospheric equipment typically used with weather balloons over Africa between 2015 and 2020 plummeted by as much as 50%.

According to the survey, less than 20% of sub-Saharan African nations offer trustworthy weather services. “Due to the varied terrain and altitude, weather stations are so far apart that their data cannot be extrapolated to the local level.”

The Systematic Observations Financing Facility, a trust fund established by the UN, is now providing funding to 13 of Africa’s most data-scarce nations, including Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Congo, to improve weather data collection and sharing. Modernizing meteorological systems in six West and Central African nations was funded through Climate Risk & Early Warning Systems, an older funding mechanism with many of the same partners.

And it goes beyond predictions. Better weather data recording is essential for decision-making when climate shocks like the worst drought in decades in Somalia grow more frequent.

“Accurate weather forecasts frequently make lives more convenient for many people in the West. ‘Shall I take an umbrella along?’ That all comes into focus a little bit more in Africa, where a lot of people rely on rain-fed agriculture, according to Nick van de Giesen, a professor of water resources management at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “Traditional ways to gauge, instance, the start of the rainy season are becoming less accurate due to a changing environment. In order to avoid having their seeds fail to germinate after a few rainy days, farmers constantly plant.

In light of the current global food security situation, that might be disastrous.

Van de Giesen is the co-director of the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, a project that has worked with schools and other organizations in 20 African nations to establish over 650 low-cost local weather monitoring stations. Due to problems, such as threats from extremist organizations that restrict access for maintenance in regions like Lake Chad, not all of those surface monitoring stations are active.

To be clear, van de Giesen said, “TAHMO can never be a replacement for effective and efficient national weather services.” He added that many African governments still lacked the necessary funds or resources.

The absence of efficient weather monitoring and early warning systems in nations like Somalia and Mozambique, which have some of the continent’s longest and most exposed coasts, has been a major factor in the deaths of thousands of people in disasters like tropical storms and flooding.

In 2019, when Cyclone Idai tore across central Mozambique, locals told The Associated Press that officials had given them little to no warning. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; some were drowned while family members clung to trees.

In the years from 1970 to 2019, Cyclone Idai cost $1.9 billion, making it the most expensive disaster in Africa, according to a WMO analysis on meteorological extremes and the financial and human costs they impose.

Additionally, attempts to relate specific natural disasters to climate change are hampered by the absence of weather data in parts of Africa.

A group of climate scientists known as World Weather Attribution stated in a paper earlier this year that the lack of sufficient data made it impossible to “confidently evaluate” the contribution of climate change to the flooding that killed hundreds of people in Congo and Rwanda near Lake Kivu in May.

In this extremely sensitive region, “we urgently need robust climate data and research,” according to their paper.

In a study on unpredictable rainfall and famine in West Africa’s Sahel region from the previous year, the researchers felt a similar sense of frustration, citing “large uncertainties” in the data.

Insisting that even minor variations in rainfall can have an impact on millions of people, they suggested investments as straightforward as a network of rain gauges.

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