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An international project that studies the West African monsoon will refocus its work to prioritise climate change and to benefit local people, if a new plan is accepted.

The West African monsoon affects the lives of millions in Sub-Saharan Africa, along the Gulf of Guinea and in the equatorial forests, but little was known about it before the African Monsoon Multidisciplinary Analyses (AMMA) began in 2002 (see West African monsoon under scrutiny and A step up for climate monitoring in the Sahel).

Last year AMMA, which involves over 400 scientists from 140 institutions in 30 countries, published its results, after years of monitoring with aircraft, ships, radars and weather balloons (see More time to unravel the African monsoon).

Last week (26 April) leading AMMA scientists released a proposed 'International Science Plan 2010-2020'.

The plan recommends diluting the "blue skies" research on the monsoon's mechanisms so that future efforts are focused on the effects that climate change might have on the monsoon. More resources would also go towards disseminating useful findings.

"This shows the human legacy of AMMA will be as strong as its scientific results," Jean-Luc Redelsperger, chair of AMMA's international scientific steering committee, told SciDev.Net.

"Through exchanges with African scientists and end users it has become increasingly clear that AMMA needs to work more on the science relevant to societal impacts," the document says.

AMMA has been successful in achieving its initial goals, it continues, such as putting in place an observation system and building an active monsoon research community.

 "The challenge in this second phase is to 'pull through' this increased knowledge to improve weather and climate predictions as well as our confidence in climate change scenarios.

Scientists outlined eight themes in the plan, from water resources to health, where AMMA could contribute better to relating research findings to understanding climate impacts in Africa.

"We will also continue to reinforce capacity-building in the region," Redelsperger  said. There are already around 160 doctoral students — half of them Africans — involved with AMMA, but the group wants to further improve links with African institutions and, ultimately, put them in charge of its programmes.

Farid Waliyar, director of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) for West and Central Africa, in Niamey, Niger, welcomed the change of emphasis.

"This research will be incredibly helpful to people in this region. If people know rainfall is going to be limited they can prepare," he said.

"Everywhere, unpredictable weather is confusing rain-dependent farmers who traditionally plant with the arrival of the monsoon. Now it can happen that the rain comes a month later and is then followed by long dry spells. Farmers don't know what or when to plant," he said.

The final version of the science plan is scheduled for endorsement by the AMMA international governing board in June.