Death tolls from climate disasters 'to rise unless Africa’s weather stations are updated'

University of Cambridge scientists say well-funded hydromet systems must become a priority to help at-risk populations

Scientists say more investment is needed to improve Africa's weather monitoring stations to more accurately predict climate crises. Getty Images
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Scientists are warning that death tolls from climate change will rise unless more investment is made in weather monitoring systems in Africa.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge say well-funded hydromet systems must become a priority to help at-risk populations mitigate and adapt to weather-related hazards as the effects of climate change take hold.

Dr Catherine Richards, from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cser) at the University of Cambridge, said the present systems are outdated.

"The climate crisis is increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heatwaves, with Africa expected to be among the global regions hit hardest," she said.

"Yet the systems and technologies across the continent that monitor and forecast weather events and changes to water levels are missing, outmoded or malfunctioning – leaving African populations even more exposed to climate change."

Her team say that without major and rapid upgrades to hydromet infrastructure, the damage and death toll caused by climate-related disasters across Africa will “balloon”.

Writing in the journal Nature, the authors point to latest research showing that over the past two decades the average number of deaths caused by a flooding event in Africa is four times higher than the European and North American average per flood.

When investigating the disparity, the team looked at World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) data and found the entire continent of Africa has just 6 per cent of the number of radar stations as the US and Europe’s combined total, despite having a comparable population size and a third more land.

In Europe and the US there are 636 radar stations for a total population of 1.1 billion and a landmass of 20 million square kilometres.

In Africa, there are just 37 for a population of 1.2 billion and landmass of 30 million square kilometres.

Drought has destroyed crops and caused an increase in food prices, leaving millions risk of famine in Somalia. Getty Images

Radar stations detect weather fluctuations and rainfall as well as long-term climate trends, and are vital for the forewarning of impending floods and other meteorological events.

The WMO data shows that more than 50 per cent of the radar stations operating in Africa are unable to produce data accurate enough to predict weather patterns for the coming days or even hours.

The research team are calling on the international community to boost funding for systems that mitigate risks to life from climate disasters. Currently, just $0.47 of every $100 spent on global development aid goes to disaster risk reduction.

“The vast gaps in Africa’s disaster reduction systems are in danger of rendering other aid investments redundant,” said Dr Asaf Tzachor, co-lead author and research affiliate at Cambridge’s Cser.

“For example, there is little point investing in smallholder farms if floods are simply going to wash away seeds, agrochemicals, and machinery.

“We need to offer all Africans a chance to reduce their exposure to climate risks by fixing this glaring hydro-meteorological blind spot, before even more lives are lost to the effects of global heating.”

To illustrate their point, the team compared the effects of two recent category four storms: Tropical Cyclone Idai that hit south-east Africa in 2019, and Hurricane Ida, which swept the eastern US in 2021. Both had wind speeds of more than 200kph.

US populations received evacuation alerts before Ida hit land, but the limited hydromet capabilities meant Idai caught African nations by surprise. The US death toll was fewer than 100, while more than 1,000 Africans lost their lives, the researchers said.

“Multilayered hydromet systems, including weather monitoring, forecasting and early warning, are taken for granted by the Global North, and have been for decades,” Dr Catherine Richards said.

“Meanwhile, the most foundational layer on which the others depend is often missing, outmoded or malfunctioning across Africa – more so than any other global region.

“Well-funded hydromet systems must become a priority to help at-risk populations mitigate and adapt to weather-related hazards as the effects of climate change take hold."

Drought-stricken Horn of Africa faces fifth failed rainy season

Drought-stricken Horn of Africa faces fifth failed rainy season

The team has outlined a series of recommendations for plugging Africa’s weather-warning gap.

“Types of climate hazard vary wildly across the continent – from the cyclones in Madagascar to the protracted droughts of east Africa,” Dr Tzachor said.

“The need for more weather stations across Africa is undeniable, but this must go hand in hand with improved satellite monitoring and major training initiatives to increase the number of skilled African meteorologists.”

The latest computational techniques must be adopted, say the authors, including automated AI approaches that combine weather data with social media activity to predict disaster dynamics.

Early warning systems need to be expanded, and provide clear directions to evacuate in local dialects.

“Over 80 per cent of Africans have access to a mobile network, so text messages could be a powerful way to deliver targeted warnings,” Dr Richards said.

Finally, major investment will be vital – and pay dividends, Dr Tzachor said.

“The World Bank has estimated a $1.5 billion price tag for continent-wide hydromet systems, but it would save African countries from $13 billion in asset losses and $22 billion in livelihood losses annually,” he said.

“A nearly nine-to-one return on investment is surely a no-brainer.”

Updated: August 18, 2023, 11:53 AM