Africa Analysis: Filling climate data gaps is only the first step
Africa's ever-improving climate change data need to be put to better use if they are to help farmers and avert disasters, says Linda Nordling.
Africa is often blamed for having scarce and unreliable weather records that hold back predictions of how climate change will affect the continent.
This has led to calls over the years for better climate-change science and record-keeping, with the most recent coming from African science academies last November.
In a statement entitled 'Climate change in Africa: Using science to reduce climate risks, the academies strongly petitioned for the production of more accurate African climate change information. They also asked African governments to intensify their support for climate change research and to incorporate evidence-based advice in their policymaking.
However, while gaps remain, hindering efforts to put fresh climate insights and predictions into use, the amount of African climate data has increased in recent years.
A clearer picture
Many recent projects have helped to plug Africa's climate data gap.
Data capture has improved through projects such as Weather Info for All (WIFA), a partnership that includes the Global Humanitarian Forum, mobile telephone operators and meteorologists. Since its creation in 2009, WIFA has set up wireless weather monitoring stations across Africa, for example in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Scientists have also been able to build up historical data sets by clever use of technology. A project funded by Google in Ethiopia reconstructed daily rainfall and temperature data going back more than 30 years by combining satellite and ground-based observations.
Ghana's meteorological agency has managed to produce digital rainfall data for its capital, Accra, all the way back to 1888. This was done through collaboration with the UK Met Office, which held some of the early observations collected while Ghana was still a British colony.
Such long-term data sets are hugely valuable and enable scientists to identify climate change trends and improve weather modelling.
More African research
Bibliographic data from the Thomson Reuters Web of Science collection of journal articles shows an upswing in African research on climate change.
Sixty-five scientific articles were published between 2000 and 2006 with the words 'climate', 'change' and 'Africa' in their titles. Between 2007 and 2012, this more than tripled to 235 articles.
South Africa leads the list of authors, with its national scientists in more than a third of these 300 articles published between 2000 and 2012. But Africans did not write all these articles.
Five non-African countries — United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands — follow before the next African country on the list, Kenya, which had national authors on only ten of the articles.
While this analysis is limited — for instance it does not catch articles with African nations' names in their titles rather than 'Africa' — it does indicate that the production of scientific data on African climate change is still mainly done in developed countries.
This becomes an issue when it comes to putting the data to work. Locally produced data can be an easier sell to African policymakers, who sometimes distrust information from outside their borders.
The next step is to disseminate that knowledge to end-users such as policymakers and farmers. But Africa has an unreliable record on this.
In West Africa, improved extreme weather predictions saved lives and assisted the disaster management during floods in 2008.
Scientists also predicted the catastrophic drought that hit the Horn of Africa in 2011 long before it happened, but policy makers failed to heed this warning.
In their November statement, African science academies called on governments to liaise with them for climate advice. This will help, as long as the academies have access to the most up-to-date scientific information.
Reaching the grassroots
The biggest challenge of all might be transmitting the information — from short-term extreme weather predictions tochanging long-term weather patterns — to Africa's smallholder farmers.
Small-scale farms account for more than 90 per cent of Africa's agricultural production. Since most of these farms rely on direct rainfall rather than irrigation to water crops, changes in weather patterns pose a huge risk to livelihoods on the continent.
Many projects are looking at ways of disseminating such information to rural people, including using radio broadcasts in local languages to achieve wider coverage. But funding shortages might hinder their large-scale rollout.
As African climate datasets grow, these dissemination networks must not be left by the wayside. A collaborative approach, whereby African governments meet to share successful dissemination methods, would reduce overlap and improve climate policy coordination between neighbouring countries.
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, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.