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Food shortages in the West African Sahel and the Horn of Africa caused by extensive drought and excessive flooding currently affect 31 million people. As the region’s rainy season begins, data from Rainwatch, a NOAA-supported rainfall monitoring system, provides the region with critical life-or-death information about the weather. And United Kingdom-based Africa Climate Exchange (AfClix) is helping bring that information to the people of sub-Saharan Africa who need it.
In a “Perspective” article published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change, the Rainwatch project is cited by the authors as a role model for the kind of on-the-ground guidance needed to deal with the environmental challenges of drought and flood and promote resilience in the face of recurring crisis in developing areas of the world.
Low water in the Niger River
The Kennedy Bridge over the Niger River shown in May 2003 after the area's driest year since 1987. Credit: With permission from Niger Basin Authority
Rainwatch is a prototype geographic information system (GIS) developed by the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies at The University of Oklahoma. It has been operating and gathering data since 2009 for the West African nation of Niger, and an upgraded version this year is covering the neighboring countries of Senegal and Mali -- all with a combined population of almost 50 million.
Rainwatch provides monsoon rainfall data in real time from monitoring stations and tracks the key seasonal attributes important for food production. Knowing when, where and what to grow or graze animals can be the difference between a bumper harvest and facing starvation. This information is crucial because sub-Saharan Africa depends more strongly and directly on rainfall than any other region on Earth. Yet the area has the fewest rainfall monitoring stations and often suffers from significant delays between the time measurements are made and the resulting data and information are available for users.
“Rainwatch provides decision makers with a low-cost early warning system,” said Peter J. Lamb, director of CIMMS. “This information could be a key to helping communities prepare for and adapt to immediate weather conditions and longer term climate changes.”
High water in the Niger River
The Kennedy Bridge over the Niger River in January 2011 after the area's wettest year since 1964. Credit: With permission from Issa Lélé
Rainwatch provides information in real-time, which helped the Niger government predict and react to the drought of 2011 and deluges of 2012, and inform non-governmental organizations like Oxfam and western governments as they request international relief aid.
Rainwatch products conveyed by AfClix, a University of Reading (U.K.) led project, have extended the program’s reach and broadened its application by putting the information into the hands of other African governments and NGOs.
“By communicating directly with organizations and individuals on the ground, AfClix has been uncovering the issues that really matter to people, and matching them with solutions that can save thousands of lives,” said Ros Cornforth, Director of AfClix and senior research scientist at the University of Reading.
Emily Boyd, professor of human geography at the University of Reading, added, “Climate information from Rainwatch can mitigate disasters by prompting officials to take action sooner.”
In the longer term, the Rainwatch data provide a definitive record and allow the current situation to be placed in a broader historical context, by making comparisons with well-known extreme earlier years, revealing clues about what is to come.
The Rainwatch program was made possible because of long-term partnerships with meteorologists in lesser developed nations, including those in Africa, funded primarily by the NOAA National Weather Service International Activities Office through the Voluntary Cooperation Program. The VCP is a World Meteorological Organization Program funded by donor country contributions to support primarily national meteorological and hydrological services in lesser developed countries.
For more information:
Perspective article in Nature Climate Change