Climate services: Old weather forecasting infrastructure in Africa poses risk to development

Climate services: Old weather forecasting infrastructure in Africa poses risk to development

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Weather forecasts don’t just inform what clothes you put on in the morning but influence much bigger and important decisions in, for example, agriculture and engineering. From small instruments like water gauges to complex forecasting systems that produce cyclone warnings, they are essential for preventing losses and protecting communities. The African continent has the world’s least developed weather, water, and climate (“hydromet”) observation network according to the World Bank. As such, development gains could be at risk from extreme weather and slow onset events, especially with the influence of climate change affecting global weather patterns.

Out of date weather stations

Less than 300 of Africa’s weather stations meet the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) observation standards. About 54 per cent of the continent’s surface weather stations, and 71 per cent of its upper-air weather stations, are out of date and do not deliver accurate data.

The cost of modernising African hydromet infrastructure runs very high at $1.5 billion. However, the benefits of the investment would offset it quickly. The World Bank estimates that updating the infrastructure could potentially save $13 billion in asset losses per year, as well as $22 billion in losses to well-being, and increase productivity leading to an additional $30 billion in savings.

Up until recently competing development needs led to a lack of resources for the hydromet infrastructure. Speaking to the Equal Times, Justus Kabyemera, coordinator of the Climate Development (ClimDev) Africa Special Fund at the African Development Bank (ADB) said “The main bottleneck is the lack of policy frameworks for hydromet services across the continent, which manifests itself into the lack of national budgetary allocations for the services.”

The results of this hydromet gap were discussed last year at the first African Ministerial Conference on Meteorology (AMCOMET) Africa Hydromet Forum. There, African leaders emphasised that weather and climate-related disasters were reversing development gains across the continent. Countries’ Gross Domestic Products can be reduced by 10-20 per cent due to such disasters, threatening their economic development.

Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Africa said “The increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters across Sub-Saharan Africa should serve as a wake-up call for governments and the international community to invest in hydromet services. Improving the accuracy of weather forecasts would not only save lives but also help African cities and communities build resilience against climate change.”

Improving the African hydromet infrastructure

Luckily, some African countries are already taking action. South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and Morocco have started investing in the modernisation of their infrastructure. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, improved hydromet and early warning services are helping local communities better prepare for extreme weather events.

On a much larger scale, the Trans-African Hydrometeorological Observatory (TAHMO) project is aiming to build a dense network of 20,000 low-cost, high-tech weather stations across Africa, each 30 kilometres apart. The stations are being placed at schools and worked into their educational programmes to help raise awareness and foster the interest among students. All data produced by TAHMO stations shall be free and openly available to scientific research and the public sector. The project, thus, aims to not just focus on infrastructure alone, but takes a holistic approach that also has the potential to influence the social, economic, and political spheres.

New initiatives like these are being implemented all around the African continent. As climate change threatens development gains, the importance of hydromet information grows.

Cover photo by TAHMO Initiative/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0): Wanyange Girls Secondary School Wildlife Club in Uganda hosts a TAHMO weather station.

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