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Scientists and aid experts are working to help local people get a better grasp of weather and climate shifts
Sub-Saharan Africa is still struggling to face droughts and floods without the weather and climate information it needs. But as the planet warms, making extreme weather more likely, efforts to fill the knowledge gaps on the continent are also gaining in strength.
Take Burkina Faso, a landlocked developing country in West Africa that has suffered recurring droughts and periods of political instability, culminating in a popular uprising last year.
While food production here isn't currently in crisis, drought and rising temperatures are a growing threat, and tens of thousands of people don't have enough to eat, particularly in the country's Sahel and Northern regions, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Scientists and aid experts are trying to reduce future risks by working on projects to gain a better understanding of Burkina Faso's weather and climate patterns, as well as people’s sensitivity to them, and how those patterns could change in the future.
Crucially, they want to make sure the information they produce is relevant to local communities and can help guide policies that will safeguard food production and the environment.
For example, a recently published study by an international team of researchers shows that a natural savannah in southeast Burkina Faso received more rainfall than nearby land cleared for agriculture, something that is happening more often as West Africa tries to produce more food.
"If the assumption is we can just change that landscape to agriculture and we're still going to have on average statistically the same amount of rainfall - you're not," said Marc Parlange, a professor of civil engineering at Canada's University of British Columbia and co-author of the study. "You're going to see a decrease in the rainfall."
For three years, researchers from Canada, Burkina Faso and the United States recorded rainfall, air temperature, humidity, soil temperature and other weather variables at a natural savannah forest in the village of Tambarga, as well as at a rice and millet field, 1.5 kilometres (1 mile) away.
They found the agricultural field received 10 to 15 percent less “convective” rain - which is produced as landscape warmth heats up the atmosphere - than the natural savannah. This is a concern, as Burkinabe farmers rely completely on rainfall and groundwater to irrigate their crops.
Parlange told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the implications for policy makers and local communities would be to avoid extensive land conversion to agricultural fields, and instead try to maintain trees where crops are planted.
“You really have to think about how you are going to insert the farms into the landscape, and keep them such that there is natural savannah that is left… so to hopefully not have such a reduction in rainfall," he said.
While the hydrologist doesn't know if the team’s results will filter through into decision making, he emphasised the importance of going into the field to accurately measure and understand what is happening, and why.
"There are very, very few people actually out measuring anything in Africa - talk is cheap," he said. Much of the work done on water, climate and weather on the continent draws on modelling and remote sensing, he added.
That is especially the case for the poorest, remote areas where equipment like weather stations is either non-existent, or if it has been installed, often not maintained.
INFORMATION YOU CAN USE
Carlo Buontempo of Britain's Met Office, who develops new tools to help decision makers manage climate risks, said Burkina Faso isn't doing too badly when it comes to the number of weather stations it has - seven - compared with its neighbours in West Africa.
But while having more stations would clearly be useful, there also is a need to ensure that forecasters and government officials know how best to use the data produced by the stations - a challenge for many developing countries.
"It is quite easy to buy infrastructure, stations and a computer, but if you don't have the capacity to ingest the data, to use the data, to improve forecasting strategies, then that is not a good investment per se," Buontempo said.
In Burkina Faso, the UK’s Met Office is working to build that capacity under the Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, supported by Britain's Department for International Development.
The goal of the three-year project, carried out by a consortium of development agencies, scientists, media and the government, is to improve access to reliable climate information for local people in hundreds of villages.
It will also help them – especially women farmers and girls – find ways of coping better with droughts, floods, extreme heat and extreme precipitation.
Buontempo said the project aims to understand who the users of weather and climate information are, what those people actually need, and how to provide it to them in an appropriate way.
"That may look like a small change, but actually it is a big step," he said. That is because there has been a tendency to believe that if weather and climate information is made available, people will act on it, but "it doesn't happen".
That is due to many reasons, including mistrust or the information being hard to use in local contexts.
The Met Office will also be training Burkinabe forecasters to use the latest models and data to produce more accurate forecasts for hard-to-track weather influences, such as the movement of the West African monsoon.
Another important element is to make the link between scientific data and traditional ways of understanding and responding to weather signals, Buontempo said. Customary practices may be wrong-footed by climate change, and will need to adapt as weather patterns shift.
"With this project, the possibility we have is to make (weather and climate) information much more actionable - more trustable, more legitimate, more understandable, more relevant, more timely," Buontempo explained.
If successful, it could give people access to the knowledge they need to prepare for and withstand the growing impacts of climate change, helping keep them out of hunger and poverty.
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