Africa flying blind as continent tips into climate crisis

With too little data to inform local climate science, African countries lack a fundamental tool to plan long term adaptation strategies

In Ethiopia, the government said 10.2 million people needed humanitarian assistance in 2016, at a cost of $1.4 billion, due to a drought that's been exacerbated by El Niño (Pic: Oxfam)

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A lack of data on African climate is slowing efforts to prepare for extreme weather, according to a new report which fills some of the gaps in Africa’s regional climate science.

Scientific evidence is the foundation of robust adaptation policies that tackle water management, energy and food security, the study says. Without it, the climate impacts that are already plunging Africa into a humanitarian crisis are poised to get much worse.

But patchy weather records, most of which lay abandoned in meteorological offices and are unlikely to ever be digitised, make the African climate system among the planet’s least understood.

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The study, produced by the Future Climate For Africa initiative, a joint program of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), finds that while Africa is poised to get hotter and its weather more erratic, most government departments are only planning short term, therefore failing to respond to slow onset environmental changes.

“It is difficult to model through computers, which makes predictions of future rainfall under climate change challenging,” said John Marsham, one of the authors at the University of Leeds, in the UK.

Although scientists know that both dry spells and heavy rainfall are likely to increase, whether some regions will get wetter or drier remains unclear.

Marsham also said that poor funding and the fact that the data are rarely shared with the scientific community are deepening the crisis.

“Long term decisions that do not account for climate change risk serious negative impacts” Marsham said. “Water supply, irrigation and drainage infrastructure built now need to be designed for the water availability, water needs and flood occurrence of the coming decades, as well as the present.”

Countries are increasingly embracing preparedness, and initiatives for adaptation in agriculture often include climate risk in their agenda.

The Adaptation of African Agriculture, presented at the UN climate talks in Marrakech this week, is one of the programs that builds on research and scientific evidence to devise practical solutions.

It connects governments and farmers in fields such as soil management, agricultural water control, as well as risk management.

“Africa, long neglected, can no longer be ignored. Today, it is an active, respected partner in the debate on global governance,” said Moroccan King Mohammed VI at the launch of the initiative.

“Cooperation, which is already intense with many countries at the bilateral level, will be further expanded and revitalized.”

But to create a robust, long term climate response strategy, funding from developed countries needs to keep flowing.

Teresa Anderson, climate and resilience expert with ActionAid, said that every dollar invested in prevention and resilience saves seven dollars in humanitarian response. “But donor countries prefer to wait until the crisis is in the news before responding to it, by which time is too late to make a real impact.”

She said that rich nations should ramp up their financial contribution to climate response, and makes no concessions to the US President-elect who vowed to slash climate aid.

“No country lives in a bubble, in a world where this year was the hottest ever recorded and 400 million people were affected by drought there is no space for climate denialism. The American people need to be aware that they live in the rest of the world,” she said.

Lou Del Bello’s series of reports on Africa and climate change is funded by CDKN

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