Africa must upgrade its early warning systems as climate crisis deepens, experts advise

By Richard Wetaya

October 11, 2021

Africa risks continued exposure to climate extremes unless it makes serious efforts to enhance and remodel its early warning systems, experts caution.

“The message for Africa is simple — increasing ambition for action is an urgent imperative,” DrRichard Munang, the Africa Regional Climate Change Coordinator at the UN Environment Program (UNEP), told the Alliance for Science.

Dr. Youba Sokona, one of the continent’s leading experts in energy, environment and sustainable development, warned that Africa must act to reduce climate-related fatalities and crop failures.

“To cut back on the mortalities Africa suffers as a result of climate extremes and to mitigate the annual episodes of food insecurity, ecosystem destruction and loss of livelihoods, countries on the continent are going to have to proactively and effectively strengthen their early climate risk warning systems to help inform and enable proactive responses to multiple weather variables like the recent torrential rains, which hit eastern, western and southern Africa, triggering huge crop and livestock losses, landslide and floods,” Sokona, who is also the IPCC vice chair, told the Alliance for Science.

The weaknesses of Africa’s weather and climate observation systems were recently highlighted in an Alliance for Hydromet Development gap report and also in last year’s state-of-climate-services report.

The gap report indicated that weaknesses in the continent’s early warning systems often contributed to inadequate climate data, whereas the state-of-climate-services report said that funding for early warning systems in many least developed countries was not always allocated to areas where investments are most needed. Both reports noted that only 40 percent of the World Meteorological Organization’s 138 member countries have effective multi-hazard early warning systems.

“The continent cannot afford anything short,” Munang said. “The recent IPCC report reinforces this understanding and notes that the window of opportunity in averting catastrophic climate change risks depends on ambitious actions taken in this decade — the decade of climate action.”

“The challenge the continent faces is a lack of pro-activeness in planning and reacting to climate events but, as the climate crisis deepens, Africa cannot afford any further apathy on investing in climate change adaptation and mitigation,” Sokona added. “African governments will have to factor climate change into their development agendas and scale up investments in efficient early multi-hazard warning and observation systems as the years go by.”

Writing in the Alliance for Hydromet Development report, Ivory Coast President Alassane Quattara stated that investments in adaptation must be substantially increased and prioritized.

He added that robust climate prediction and accurate weather forecasts are critical in making the right adaptation policy and investment decisions, but he later acknowledged that many developing countries, including his own, do not have the resources to sustain the human, institutional and infrastructure capacity required for the provision of high-quality weather forecasts, early warnings and climate information.

Discussions about investments in early warning and early action formed the basis of discussions at the Climate Adaptation Summit 2021 hosted by Holland earlier this year.

An estimated 23,000 lives per year could be saved and potential annual benefits of at least US$ 162 billion could be realized by upgrading early warning systems, weather forecasts and climate information in low-and middle-income countries, the Hydromet report noted.

Several African meteorological experts agree that scaled-up investments in early warning systems are the right course of action given the recent weather extremes the continent has experienced.

The African continent has experienced over 2,000 major disaster events during the last three decades, with most of them being extreme weather, climate‐induced disasters such as food insecurity, droughts, floods, flash floods, landslides, storms and cyclones., according to a weather analysis report released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in May.

Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi were among the countries most impacted by climate extremes in 2019, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020.

Despite insufficient funding, the continent has made strides in developing satellite observations for early warning systems in recent decades.

For instance, the African Development Bank this year provided €20 million (US$23 million) for the installation of four regional advanced retransmission service (RARS) stations in Gabon, Niger, Kenya and South Africa under the Satellite and Weather Information for Disaster Resilience in Africa (SAWIDRA) program.

Ostensibly, the stations provide hydro meteorologists high-resolution satellite data that can be readily assimilated into computer models to enable early warnings.

In June this year, the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Initiative mobilized an additional US$ 28 million to deliver early warning systems in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and small island developing States (SIDs) to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of severe weather.

There have also been inroads made under the $5.6m high impact weather lake system highway project a pilot regional Early Warning System to inform fisherfolk and other local stakeholders about high impact weather events on Lake Victoria.

By all accounts, the project has reduced annual weather-related deaths on the lake by 30% – thus saving more than 300 lives per year.

In West Africa, a region particularly vulnerable to climate variability and low adaptability, the specialized climate risk and early warning systems initiative has been strengthening capacities for regional climate early warning. At length, a West Africa Flash Flood Guidance System was established.

Image: Thunderstorm over a farm in the Highveld of South Africa. Photo: Shutterstock/Etienne Outram