Reaching out to farmers and rural communities, a network of amateur radio operators supports efforts to improve communication on droughts and floods throughout the continent.
Natural disasters such as droughts and floods can have devastating impacts on the economies of African countries. The availability, dissemination and application of timely climate and weather information are therefore vital in supporting national socio-economic development efforts. There are many problems, however, including the inadequate meteorological observation network, the lack of effective climate monitoring and weather prediction services, and generally poor communications facilities. Thus the most vulnerable groups of society, such as farmers and rural communities, are unable to receive timely climate and weather forecasts, and so are at the mercy of extreme weather conditions.
To address these problems, and to close the knowledge gap between the producers and users of climate information, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has launched the global Climate Information and Prediction Services (CLIPS). In Africa, as in many other parts of the world, the producers are the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS). Each country has an NMHS station that provides national and regional forecasting services. Unfortunately, the numbers of technical staff and their capabilities vary from country to country, depending on the level of national development.
This situation has led CLIPS members to review and make better use of existing information systems to provide basic climate forecasting services for rural communities, and thus help reduce the impacts of adverse weather conditions. One such system is the network of HAM  radio stations.
A HAM radio station is a complete amateur radio station with its own frequency and network of devoted participants who use it to exchange various types of information. HAM uses wireless radio technology which is carried on numerous bands, extending from 1.8 MHz (a wavelength of about 160 metres) up to several hundred gigahertz (wavelengths in the millimetre range). The power of HAM radio lies in the fact it works when all other services fail. When an area is struck by floods, for example, the utility grid – including mobile phone towers and antennas – is likely to be destroyed over hundreds of square kilometres. During such emergencies, amateur radio is often the only means of communication between the communities in the affected area and the outside world.
HAM radio therefore offers enormous potential for improving the surface weather observation network and information dissemination throughout Africa. The CLIPS project has decided to tap this potential and is exploring the possibilities of expanding its mandate to assist in the HAM radio-based collection and dissemination of climate information and prediction services. Ultimately, CLIPS aims to put in place a fully-fledged international HAM radio operator network to support the efforts of the NMHS.
The NMHS units in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are already implementing a pilot project, called ‘Enhanced Surface Observations by Voluntary Observers’. The first phase, which was successfully completed in September 2002, involved carrying out a survey of potential voluntary observers and HAM radio operators. The NMHS stations then organized a regional workshop to bring together the observers and operators as well as the producers of climate information. The participants were asked to assist in designing possible methods of improving the surface weather observation network across East Africa. This led to the identification of new observation sites located close to existing HAM radio stations. After the workshop, as part of a capacity building exercise, the HAM radio operators and voluntary observers received training in weather observation methods, and the value of weather and climate information and prediction services. In the next phase of the project a limited number of inexpensive, stand-alone surface observation systems will be installed at remote sites throughout the region. If this initial effort proves successful, CLIPS will consider expanding the network to cover other parts of Africa.
 HAM is a contraction of the names of Albert Hyman, Bob Almy and Peggie Murray, who operated the Harvard Radio Club in 1908 and established an early standard for amateur radio.
For more information, visit the CLIPS website.
Professor Laban Ogallo is coordinator of the Drought Monitoring Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.