Climate scientists describe Africa as an information "black hole". The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes that there are only 744 weather stations, but only a quarter of them are of international standard; at least 3,000, evenly spaced across the continent, are needed, with another 1,000 in densely populated areas; ideally, Africa should have at least 10,000 stations.
The need for better weather information is clear - at the beginning of September 2009, floods inundated West Africa, dislocating 250,000 people; a quarter of the normal annual rainfall was dumped on Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, in one day. In contrast, the Horn of Africa is reporting a major drought every two years, and the countries there are taking up to five years to recover.
At the World Climate Conference (WCC3) in Geneva, Switzerland, Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of WMO noted: "Strengthening weather observation in Africa will benefit Africa, but it is also going to benefit the rest of us.
It's a win-win situation." Government representatives at the conference did not have the required mandate to commit but the meeting laid out a blueprint for moving forward towards a global framework for collecting and analyzing climate information for adaptation to climate change.
Jarraud's sentiments were echoed by Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who stressed that it was important to standardize data and set up a global framework for providing climate services, so that experts and weather services could work from the same page.
"Different countries have different philosophies about information related to the climate," she said. "It is not that one is right and the other wrong; it is that they need to be harmonized."
The proposed framework has four components: observation and monitoring; research, climate modelling and prediction; a climate services information system; and a user interface programme. The first two components already exist but need strengthening. The last two components will constitute a "World Climate Service System".
An intergovernmental meeting at the end of 2009 will establish a task force to draft a blueprint for designing and implementing the framework, and submit its report to the WMO congress in 2011 for action.
Plans to improve climate services are already underway. One reason is that the wealthier industrialized countries realize that they are also being affected by climate change.
Thomas Karl, who heads the NOAA's climate services, reported that the US has been experiencing reduced rainfall in its western states and unusually heavy precipitation events in the northeastern states.
Growing recognition of the seriousness of the problem is opening the door to innovative ideas like "Weather Info for All", a global public-private partnership initiative to put automated weather stations on the cellular phone towers springing up across Africa.
The project involves the WMO, Ericsson, an international telecommunications and information technology company; Zain, a Middle Eastern telecommunications company; the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the US; and the Global Humanitarian Forum, an annual gathering of humanitarian community leadership in Geneva, Switzerland.
The automatic weather stations draw electric power from the cell phone towers and use sensors to measure temperature, atmospheric pressure, humidity, wind speed, precipitation and sunshine.
The information is transmitted to national meteorological and hydrological services, analyzed, and fed back to national decision-makers in Africa, and eventually to farmers and other clients in the field.
In the first phase of the project, 19 such stations are on a trial run in Tanzania; in phase II, 489 stations will be set up across the rest of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, and become operational after technical kinks have been ironed out. The initial roll-out of 508 automated weather stations is expected to cost just under US$9 million, and the partnership hopes to expand the programme to the rest of Africa.
One of the functions of the climate services framework will be to provide hard data to demonstrate to decision-makers and the public why it is important to act now.
In Africa, especially, there has been an understandable tendency to spend on pressing short-term problems and worry about the weather later, but it is becoming increasingly clear that major climate events like floods, droughts and cyclones are driving more people below the poverty line.
Sudden increases in rainfall also increase health risks, ranging from malaria to red fever and meningitis, and decision-makers need a broader understanding of the hidden threats of climate change.
Climate emergencies cannot be avoided, but with good planning based on solid information, a country's vulnerability to such events and the often crippling costs of recovery and reconstruction can be reduced considerably. For these reasons, climate is emerging as a major factor in development.
Reducing greenhouse emissions is likely to prove more complicated, but NOAA's Lubchenco told reporters in Geneva that the urgency of dealing with the climate is now becoming apparent, even to sceptics who previously questioned global warming.
"Regardless of what happens in Copenhagen [where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in December to set new targets for emission cuts] the need for information will only increase."
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Photo: Lynette Strauss