Automatic weather stations for Africa could help achieve new global goals

by Nick van Giesen, Delft University of Technology | Delft University of Technology
Tuesday, 29 September 2015 15:24 GMT

Farmer Patrick Kasamu walks through his field of maize close to the town of Chikuni in the south of Zambia, February 21, 2015. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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Can 20,000 automatic weather stations across Africa help build greater resilience to climate change?

World leaders agreed on Friday the U.N. global goals that will provide the blueprint for the world’s development up until 2030. These ambitions rightly include ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water for all, and achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture.

The new global development blueprint is one that is supported by Delft University of Technology and Oregon State University, and the ambitious project they are leading called the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO), which seeks to install 20,000 automatic weather stations across sub-Sahelian Africa.

Recognising that global food production needs to be increased by some 30 percent to 80 percent to meet the demands of rising populations, and the problems of the continent's erratic weather, the scheme is pioneering a cost-effective network of hydro-meteorological measuring stations to provide better maps of water and weather in Africa.

This scheme is genuinely ‘game-changing’ because the current African meteorological observation network is very limited. As a result, national governments and regional planners do not have the data to make proper decisions regarding investments in water resources infrastructure to boost food production.

TAHMO has already started installing hundreds of stations in Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria.

The stations are entirely self-powered by a match-box sized solar panel, use GSM cell-phone to call in 5-minute readings each hour, reporting rainfall, solar radiation, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, GPS location, lightning location and intensity, soil moisture, and depth to groundwater.

The stations have no moving parts: wind is measure via ultrasonic time-of-flight, and rainfall by counting drips emerging from the gauge.

The potential of the scheme is highlighted by the fact that TAHMO was selected from nearly 500 applications as one of eight winning teams in the Global Resilience Challenge organised by the Rockefeller Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

This competition is a multi-stage design contest designed to find transformative resilience solutions to problems that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations in the Sahel, Horn of Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

TAHMO will now receive up to $1 million in funding to implement the proposed solution in a way that can be scaled and adopted by others in the future. The solution proposed focuses on installing an automated climate observation system, with emergency weather warnings being provided to farmers, fishermen, and the citizens of Uganda.

The solution proposed by TAHMO focuses on low-income and rural agricultural populations in the Horn of Africa that are extremely vulnerable to climate-related hazards that cause loss of life and livelihood. For instance, agricultural workers, which include small-scale farmers, fishermen, and pastoralists, constitute 80 percent of the labour force in Uganda.

Ugandan farmers lose $750 annually per household from crop failures due to climate related hazards such as drought, pestilence, and flooding. The 136,000 Ugandan fishermen and over 1 million men and women in the fisheries industry around Lake Victoria are subject to unique weather-related hazards with the region experiencing 285 thunderstorm days per year, resulting in 5,000 drownings per year.

This project will provide a complete end-to-end solution with weather information flowing from our network of stations all the way down to millions of vulnerable agriculturalists in Uganda. Several innovations along this information chain are based on technologies developed within the region.
Immediately after launch, all 16 million plus mobile phone owners in Uganda will have on-demand access to weather information. And this solution will be easily transferrable to communities across Africa. The project will use model outputs in expansion of the EWS network to other countries in the

Lake Victoria basin, including Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda, where pilot operations have already been established.
Challenging as the project is, the massive potential prizes ahead are even bigger, including a self-sustaining meteorological network, greater crop productivity, and economic advancement, not just in Africa, but potentially elsewhere too.

It is crucial for future generations that we seize the opportunity, and not let it slip through our fingers.

Nick van Giesen is the Van Kuffeler Chair of Water Resources at Delft University of Technology.