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Overcoming challenges in the availability and use of climate data in Africa

Tufa Dinku

Availability of and access to climate data and information products is critical to achieving climate resilient development. However, climate information is not widely used in Africa. Useful information is often not available or, if it does exist, is inaccessible to those that need it most. Efforts are being made to alleviate the problem of data availability and use.

One of these efforts is the ENACTS (Enhancing National Climate Services) initiative that has been led by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), at the Earth Institute at Colombia University. The ENACTS initiative delivers robust climate data, targeted information products and training specifically relevant to the needs of farmers and food security decision-makers at multiple levels, empowering a diverse range of actors to use past, present and future climate information in agriculture and food security-related response actions with confidence. ENACTS has so far been implemented in Ethiopia, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

Challenges in the availability of climate data

Africa is well-known as having inadequate and inefficient observation networks, for example as mentioned by the African Climate Policy Centre. The state of the in-situ climate observing system is seriously inadequate, with the number and quality of weather stations in many parts of the continent in decline. The available stations are unevenly distributed with most of the stations located along the main roads.

Figure 1 presents the percentage of CLIMAT reports (monthly climatological data assembled at land-based meteorological surface observation sites and sent to data centres) received from the different regions at World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) during 2004-2008 compared to what is required. The contribution from Africa, at about 30% of what is needed, is the least of all. Besides, a significant proportion of that is from South Africa, where the density of stations is significantly better than other parts of Africa.

Figure 1: Percentage of CLIMAT reports received compared to what is required (Data Source: WMO)

Figure 2 shows that the number of stations sending data to the Global Precipitation Climatology Centre (GPCC) has been declining drastically since the early 1981s. This decline may be attributed to two factors. The first reason is that data is available but may not have been provided to GPCC, while the second reason is an actual decline in station network at the national level. For example, the second case is evident in Madagascar, which shows a dramatic decline in observations over the last 50 years. 

Figure 2: Number of stations that were used in the GPCC full-data product from Africa

There are different factors contributing to the sparse distribution of the observation network and its decline over the years. These may include difficult and remote geography, disperse nature of rural population, conflict, lack or decline of investment. A difficult geography, such as mountainous and desert areas, can deter investment in observation stations as they require larger capital, operational, and maintenance investments. 

Conflict or political upheaval can result in missing observations and therefore gaps in the data record. An example is the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The meteorological observation network was devastated during this period and it took close to 15-years to revive the stations. Furthermore, lack or declining investment in the establishment and maintenance of weather stations has been a major challenge in Africa, because weather observation was less of a priority compared to other issues. 

Bridging gaps in climate observations and use 

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University, in collaboration with partners, has been leading an ambitious effort to simultaneously improve the availability, access and use of climate information at the national level through its ENACTS initiative. ENACTS focuses on the creation of reliable and actionable climate information that is suitable for national and local decision-making. 

The ENACTS approach has three major components: improving data availability, enhancing access to climate information, and promoting the use of climate information. Improving data availability involves filling spatial and/or temporal data gaps. The approach adopted by ENACTS to accomplish this is combining quality-controlled station measurements with satellite rainfall estimates for rainfall and satellite and/or reanalysis for temperature datasets. The main advantage of the satellite and reanalysis products is that they offer spatially complete data and are freely available. Satellite rainfall estimates now go back over 30-years while reanalysis products go even further back in time. Thus, the approach combines the spatial information from the satellite or reanalysis proxies with station measurements. The final products are datasets with 30 or more years of rainfall and temperature time series for every four-kilometre grid across a country. 

Enhancing Access to Climate Information

Even the best data has no value if not accessed and used. The ENACTS approach enhances access to climate information products by making information products available online. This is accomplished by customising and installing the very powerful IRI Data Library at the National Meteorological Agencies and developing an online mapping service that provides user-friendly tools for the analysis, visualisation, and download of climate information products, like the “Meteo Rwanda Map Room” that shows in maps and figures all kind of climate trends. 

Generating climate information products and making them available online may not necessarily lead to their uptake. Users need to be engaged in the value and application of such information products. Users need to be aware of the existence these products and be trained to understand and use the products. Users should also contribute to the development of relevant information products. Therefore, ENACTS also promotes the use of climate information by engaging and collaborating with users. 

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Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Rural and Agricultural Cooperation

CTA is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.