Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Better African heatwave data could save lives, shield economies, report says

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 July 2020 16:23 GMT

Clouds gather but produce no rain as cracks are seen in the dried up municipal dam in drought-stricken Graaff-Reinet, South Africa, November 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Image Caption and Rights Information

Continent's patchy climate data seen compromising efforts to implement early warning systems

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG, July 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Heatwaves over the last century in sub-Saharan Africa have not been properly recorded, undermining early warning systems to save lives and prevent economic losses caused by soaring temperatures, a University of Oxford report said on Monday.

Researchers found the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), the world's biggest database of extreme weather events, includes data on just two African heatwaves since 1900, compared with dozens in recent decades in other global regions.

A lack of expertise and poor governance on the issue, along with limited observational networks contributed to the shortfall, they said.

"Both real-world observations and climate modelling show sub-Saharan Africa as a hotspot for heatwave activity... But these heatwaves are not being recorded," said Luke Harrington, a senior researcher at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute and one of the study's authors.

"It's as if they haven't happened, but we know they have," he said.

The report found that in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa's two reports in the EM-DAT, 83 European heatwaves in the last 40 years were documented.

Environmental campaigners warned that the lack of data on extreme heat events meant African experiences of climate change were being excluded from the global debate.

"People in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves... but if they are not recorded by scientists it will be harder for African voices to be heard," said Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based climate think-tank Power Shift Africa.

More than half a billion people are likely to be hit by heat stress above safe levels by 2100 if global average temperatures continue to rise, according to a study published in March in the Environmental Research Letters journal.

The research found some 275 million people suffered at least one day of dangerous heat stress annually at present.

Extreme heat can lead to kidney disorders and psychiatric illness, severe dehydration and can aggravate cardiac conditions, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Another of the Oxford report's authors, Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute, said lives could be saved relatively easily if warning systems worked well.

"Early warnings make people aware to drink water regularly and (governments can) also make drinking water freely available and open public buildings that are cool," Otto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

She said collaboration between health experts, disaster researchers and meteorologists could help fill the data gaps, making extreme weather events predictable and avoiding unnecessary loss of life.

Adow, who was not involved in the Oxford study, said accurate data would also spur climate action by African governments and international leaders.

"Africa is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. But if we don't fully know how much the canary is suffering, it's not good for the canary or for the rest of the world either," he said.

Related stories:

Life-threatening extreme heat set to trap millions indoors by 2060

'A sly thief': Rising heat steals jobs and lives in eastern India

Hundreds of millions of poor menaced by 'silent killer': heat

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.