Africa Analysis: Regional climate plan deserves support
A new southern African climate plan is impressive, but needs more funding if it is to plug the continent's data gap, writes Linda Nordling.
Africa's rain-fed agriculture and high poverty levels mean it can’t roll with the punches of an unpredictable climate.
But detailed studies on how climate change might affect areas of Africa are often thwarted by a lack of climate data.
Now the continent's southern countries have agreed a plan to strengthen climate data collection and interpretation in the region. And the global climate summit to be held in South Africa in December is a great opportunity to raise funds to put the plan into action.
A regional first
The Southern African Development Community's (SADC) Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Implementation Framework to Support Climate Change Response was adopted by the region's science ministers in May.
It sets out how SADC's 15 member states will collect and share climate information, and coordinate their scientific response to the threat of climate change.
Other African regions — such as the East African Community — are working on joint policies to address climate change. But SADC's is set to become the first transnational framework on climate change that is specific to science, the SADC secretariat says.
Africa is short of the data it needs to understand its specific climate trends and build reliable models to anticipate the impacts of climate change.
The density of meteorological stations is about eight times lower than the minimum recommended by the World Meteorological Organization.
According to Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, a researcher from the Centre for Development and Environment in Bern, Switzerland, investment in equipment and personnel is patchy across Africa and measurements are rare in rural regions, where predictions are particularly important for agriculture. 
The data gap also affects the credibility and use of existing information in decisions, undermining the continent's attempts to mitigate climate change and plan for its impacts.
Mapping the risks
Under the first area, countries in the region will audit existing climate data — a five-year exercise that will include integrating archived data and regularly collecting new data. Based on this audit, the network of meteorological stations will be expanded where needed.
The plan also focuses on identifying sectors vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including producing a vulnerability atlas identifying areas at increased risk of flooding or drought.
Under mitigation, the framework will audit carbon-offset projects in the SADC region and fund research to test ways of quantifying their carbon removal potential. Biofuels will be investigated as a way of cutting dependence on fossil fuels.
Finally, the adaptation strategy includes developing a portfolio of green technology projects, as well as research into disease-resistant and stress-tolerant crops.
A positive reception
The plan has received mostly good reviews by the region's scientists.
Phoebe Barnard, climate and biodiversity scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, is glad it provides for more climate observation equipment.
"This ... has been a constant source of weakness in developing accurate climate projections for the region. In Namibia, for instance, there are only a handful of meteorological stations with long-term records of much depth and accuracy," she says.
Bruce Hewitson, from the University of Cape Town's Climate Systems Analysis Group, agrees the plan is good news. "[It] has some exceptionally positive elements, most notably the intention to consolidate the observational record and network which has for a long time constrained the research on regional climate dynamics."
But he is concerned that the plan overlooks training the people needed to expand climate data gathering and analysis. The region's small group of climate scientists is already stretched.
The plan has admirable objectives, says Hewitson, but doesn't identify some implicit challenges. For example, there is a danger of underestimating the challenge of packaging climate information for policymakers. "In practice the development of actionable information is not simply one of running some procedures to generate numbers."
A plea to donors
The plan is ambitious, and the political backing for it means the region is taking climate science seriously. But who will foot the bill?
The document does not identify the cost of the projects. But some money has already been committed. The South African government is sponsoring the programme to the tune of 1.5 million South African rand (around US$220,000), matched by the Australian government.
This is unlikely to support all planned activities, but funding will also come from SADC governments — not least by the countries' realigning of their research funding with the framework.
SADC is also seeking donor funding. In a meeting hosted by South Africa's Department for Science and Technology last month (29 June), the plan was presented to 17 development partners.
The framework comes too late to bear fruit with new data by December, when South Africa hosts the annual international climate summit COP 17 in Durban. A better understanding of the region's climate would improve the chances of influencing global carbon-cutting targets in its favour.
However, southern Africa can and should use the spotlight that will shine on the region in the lead-up to the summit to highlight the climate data gap and lobby for funding to plug it. Despite its shortcomings, the region's climate science framework is a great blueprint, and it deserves support.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.