Climate monitoring upgrades urgently needed in Africa

Systems for monitoring weather and water in Africa are “missing, outmoded or malfunctioning”, researchers warn.

Community leaders learning how to read the rain gauge in Ghana. Africa has less than 40 weather stations, compared to hundreds in US, Europe. Copyright: WMO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Community leaders learning how to read the rain gauge in Ghana. Africa has less than 40 weather stations, compared to hundreds in US, Europe. Copyright: WMO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Damage and deaths caused by climate-related disasters across Africa will balloon if the continent’s so-called “hydromet” infrastructure for monitoring weather and water and is not urgently upgraded, scientists warn.

Hydrological and meteorological, or hydromet, hazards—including weather, water and climate extremes—are responsible for 90 per cent of total disaster losses worldwide, according to the World Bank.

The climate crisis is increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heatwaves—with Africa expected to be among the regions hit hardest, according to a team of risk experts and climatologist, writing in the journal Nature.

Over the last two decades, the average number of deaths caused by flooding events in Africa was four times higher than the European and North American average per flood, observe the experts from United Kingdom and Africa working under the auspices of the University of Cambridge, UK. They say this is down to a lack of preparedness and warning systems.

Systems and technologies across the continent that monitor and forecast weather events and changes to water levels are “missing, outmoded or malfunctioning”, leaving African populations even more vulnerable to climate change, the researchers say.

Lead author Asaf Tzachor, a researcher at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, said the implications for Africa’s population and economies were catastrophic.

“We expect damages and [the] death toll to swell,” Tzachor told SciDev.Net.

As climate change continues, extreme weather events will increase in frequency and intensity, putting communities across the continent at risk, according to Tzachor, who is also an educator at the interface of sustainability sciences, emerging technologies, and global risks.

“We further expect some areas in Sub-Saharan Africa to bear the brunt of extreme weather events to a greater extent, namely in the horn of Africa,” he said, citing protracted droughts as a likely scenario.

The Niger Delta, in West Africa, would likely see delays in the onset of the wet season while countries south and west of Madagascar can expect increasingly intense cyclones, Tzachor added.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers analysed 25 years’ worth of data relating to hydrological and meteorological disasters, including floods, flash-floods, droughts, and heatwaves, around the world.

They searched for patterns and anomalies in global data on thousands of disaster events, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths and billions of dollars’ worth of damages to infrastructure. Their analysis showed that Africa was four-times as vulnerable as other regions.

Poor early warning systems

World Meteorological Organization data highlighted in the study also showed that the entire continent of Africa has just 37 radar stations while the US and Europe’s combined total is 636, despite having a greater population size and a third more land.

“We found additional disparities in weather forecasting and nowcasting capabilities, as well as poor early warning systems across the continent,” Tzachor said.

Abdi Aden, a pastoralist from Afmadow in Southern Somalia, lost 3,000 goats in the recent drought gripping the Horn of Africa.

He says he had no way of knowing the drought that hit the region in the summer of 2019 would be more prolonged.

“Nobody warned us the drought would take three years. Otherwise we would have sold some of the animals—or all of them to avoid the huge losses incurred,” he told SciDev.Net.

Aden and his family now rely on government and humanitarian aid after their main source of income was wiped out by the drought.

Localised early warning systems, improved satellite monitoring and training for African meteorologists are hugely important for weather prediction and disaster mitigation across Africa, according to Joab Odhiambo, senior lecturer in the department of Mathematics at Meru University of Science and Technology in Kenya.

“Tailoring warnings to specific regions ensures that the information is relevant and actionable, helping communities understand and respond effectively to imminent threats like floods or droughts,” Odhiambo told SciDev.Net

“By fostering community engagement, these localised systems enable people to take preventive measures, thereby reducing [the] potential impact of disasters,” he added.

The Cambridge University researchers recommend investment in state-of-the-art weather surveillance radars, alongside investments in advanced satellite with microwave sounders to measure moisture in the atmosphere and precipitation rates.

“We recommend developing real-time weather simulation and computer modelling, called numerical weather prediction, across all African national meteorological and hydrological services,” said Tzachor.

“Computational forecasting is critical to pick up extreme weather with [hyperlocal] details—essential when it comes to tracking unfolding climate hazards, such as storm surges and floods.”

Written by

Dann Okoth


This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net on 28 August 2023. Read the original article.

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