We can improve climate information for Africa
A collaborative project in Ethiopia that has created climate data and tools can be applied in much of Africa, says climate scientist Tufa Dinku.
Famine in the Horn of Africa is a reminder of how fluctuations in climate can destroy the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people on the continent, and why the management of climate-related risks is central to sustainable development.
Incorporating climate issues into development policy, planning and practice is crucial. Making climate information available to users such as development practitioners and researchers is an essential step in improving food security, timing public health interventions and reducing vulnerability to extreme events.
But limited systematic knowledge about the climate, its historical variability and likely future trends has so far made this impossible. Quality-assured climate information must be based on quality-assured climate data, and trained staff capable of putting it to good use.
Satellite data fill gaps
Such data have largely been absent in Africa, where meteorological observations from weather stations are a fraction of what the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) considers to be even basic coverage. Where records exist, they frequently suffer from gaps and poor quality, and they are mostly not easily accessible outside national meteorological agencies.
Satellite data have been used since the 1980s to supplement climate station data. While less accurate, they provide complete spatial coverage of variables such as rainfall or temperature on the continent. It is possible to produce complete and good quality climate data by combining surface observations with satellite-derived data.
Making the data and derived products available through the Internet, and then training the user community to demand, understand and use climate information, are the essential steps towards the better management of climate-related risks in Africa.
This approach has been implemented in Ethiopia in a collaboration between the country's National Meteorology Agency (NMA), the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Columbia University, in the United States, and the TAMSAT (Tropical Applications of Meteorology using Satellite data and ground-based observations) group at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
Funded by Google.org as part of the health initiative, 'Building capacity to produce and use climate and environmental information for improving health in East Africa', the partners produced climate data — ten daily observations for every ten kilometre grid across the country — that covered a period of more than 30 years. They also created online tools for visualising, querying and downloading information from the NMA website. 
Importantly, the training of staff at the NMA, which was part of the project, has been essential to making the work sustainable. Public health professionals — mainly epidemiologists from regional health bureaus — were also trained to understand and use climate information.
Opening up data access
It has only been a few months since the NMA announced the availability of its new data and services, but they are already being accessed from within and outside the country. Data are being used, for instance, by a university researcher to assess water resources in western Ethiopia, and by health professionals for assessing the effect of climate on malaria intervention efforts in the country.
This is significant and unprecedented in Africa. Before now, anyone interested in rainfall data would need a written formal request, pay a small fee and obtain the data in paper format weeks later. In the new system, they will get better information at the click of a mouse by visiting the NMA's website.
The only limitation is Internet access — a critical but diminishing shortcoming on a continent where access to the web, through mobile devices in particular, is expanding rapidly.
The work in Ethiopia is not finished. Users will need further support and training in understanding new and existing climate information products, and they will need more customised offerings. But no other meteorological service in Africa, or in many other parts of the world, provides such services free of charge.
Reaching all of Africa
The work could — and should — serve as a template to improve climate services across Africa. Implementing a similar project in another country will now be cheaper and faster.
As the Ethiopian project is the first of its kind, the team had to obtain and process the raw satellite data spanning 30 years. This took more than a year to complete — but in doing so, data were processed for all of Africa, so this step will not have to be repeated.
The methodologies and computer codes that are used to produce the data can be easily adapted for any other country. And similarly, the data query and analysis facilities, built on the IRI's data library infrastructure  and installed outside the IRI for the first time, can now easily be customised for another country.
To replicate the work, meteorological agency staff need to be trained to organise and assess the quality of their national data, digitising from paper records where necessary; update data management and web capacities for dissemination; and engage in publicity campaigns to ensure potential users are aware of the opportunities available.
This first step has already been made in a few countries, including Tanzania and Madagascar, and plans are underway in others. The project in Tanzania is expected to be completed by the end of August.
But making climate information available is only one side of the coin — user communities need to be encouraged and trained not only to access the data for initial analysis, but also to consider how the data might be customised to serve specific development needs. This is the next challenge for the work that began in Ethiopia, and why scaling up this effort is essential for Africa.
Tufa Dinku is an associate research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), The Earth Institute, Columbia University in New York, United States. Tufa can be contacted at [email protected].