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Sub-Saharan Africa needs next-generation weather and climate services

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Sub-Saharan Africa needs next-generation weather and climate servicesA worker installs an all-in-one automatic weather station (AWS) on a cell phone tower near Kotido, Uganda. Five AWS have been set up across the country through the Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems project. Photo: Solomon Mangeni

In Tanzania, a lightning strike killed a teacher and six students in 2015 – another sad example of the thousands of deaths that could be avoided with the effective deployment of modern weather and climate services, including early warnings for extreme weather events like lightning, flooding and drought. Providing these services not only saves lives but also is central to building resilience to climate change, empowering nations and strengthening livelihoods across Africa’s most vulnerable communities.

As we take the mandates established in Paris and move on to the Marrakech Climate Change Conference, it becomes very clear that providing accurate, timely and reliable weather, water and climate information will be key in supporting the efforts of leaders across sub-Saharan Africa to build resilience to climate change and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

When used to improve decision making, hydro-meteorological, or hydromet, information can empower nations, save thousands of lives every year, and strengthen livelihoods across a region that has contributed the least to human-induced climate change but is among the most vulnerable to its effects.

For over 30 years, the international development community has made substantial investments in weather, water and climate technologies for sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, this investment has totalled over a billion US dollars. Nevertheless, today, “most hydromet services in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to meet current needs for weather and climate information, and offer only limited areas of transboundary cooperation.”

Why has this happened? There are a number of contributing factors. According to a UNDP publication exploring “A New Vision for Weather and Climate Services” that will be launched at the Marrakech Climate Change Conference: The problems vary by country but typically include some combination of poor planning for the ongoing expenses and skills required for the maintenance, service and management of weather, water and climate monitoring systems, a preference for technological solutions that work well in the developed world but are not well suited for the unique rigours of deployment in sub-Saharan Africa, and poor integration between disparate donor-supported investments in the hydromet services space.”

With the right technologies, increased capacity, and just a bit of forward thinking in the way end-to-end systems are deployed, Africa can greatly improve the impact of efforts to modernize its national hydrometeorological services. These modernized services will provide government leaders, smallholder farmers, entrepreneurs, business leaders and decision makers with real-time alerts about extreme weather events. They also provide reliable information on how to adjust to a changing climate reality – be it in the ministerial office, on the farm or across the table in the board room.

Decision makers can use this valuable information to inform National Adaptation Plans, strengthen agricultural production, lower migration caused by climate change, and build climate-smart infrastructure designed to withstand the potential challenges presented by a changing climate.

Investment in hydromet services is, after all, smart business. Every dollar spent produces a five-fold or greater return in economic development, according to the publication. For example, the economic impact of climate hazards on the agricultural sector in Uganda is estimated to be in excess of US$46.9 million annually.

Private sector enterprises can also use the information to inform their own climate adaptation strategies, while on the community level, village leaders can develop climate-resilient strategies to improve local enterprises and protect farm equipment, livestock and other productive assets.

But how can sub-Saharan Africa avoid the technology traps that have left “54 percent of the surface and 71 percent of the upper air weather stations in the region” failing to report data, as reported by the World Meteorological Organization?

The key is looking beyond traditional systems that are costly to maintain and not well-suited for deployment in tropical areas.

In order to take advantage of these new opportunities, countries will need to rethink the status quo and be innovative. New approaches, such as using all-in-one automatic weather stations, lightning locating systems, and cloud-based computing and data processing can significantly lower deployment and maintenance costs.

In some cases, monitoring systems can be deployed on cell towers, ensuring effective security, power and communications. Telecommunications companies can also play a part in sharing alerts on fast-acting storms.

In its essence, this new vision for weather and climate services is about going beyond the simple procurement and installation of yet another monitoring technology, to an end-to-end systems approach. This approach not only looks at how technology is installed, but how it is maintained, how it is serviced and how it will be used by the region to transform national economies and policies, and build the climate-smart nations of the 21st century.

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