Weather and Climate: International cooperation for sustainable development

By: Mark Majodina and Hailu Wudineh
(External Relations focal points of WMO with South Africa and Ethiopia Respectively)

Weather and climate affect a myriad of socio-economic sectors. It is therefore no surprise that weather and climate have an influence on all the African Government priorities, in particular: “Massive programme to build economic and social infrastructure”; “Sustainable resource management and use” and the “Comprehensive rural development strategy linked to land and agrarian reform and food security”. Weather refers to the changes in the conditions of the atmosphere (day-to-day variations) whereas climate refers to the behaviour of the atmosphere over longer time scales (e.g. monthly, seasonal). Weather and climate have an influence on water resources (e.g. dam levels dependent on rainfall amounts), transport (dependence of air transport safety and efficiency on accurate weather information), health (e.g. linkage between weather/ climate and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, meningitis, rift valley fever and dengue fever), food security and production (linkage of crop yields to rainfall and temperature), electricity generation (general use of heaters and air conditioners to control temperatures). The vulnerability of human settlement to extreme weather and climate episodes, especially in rural settings, cannot be over-emphasized.
The atmosphere and oceans play a crucial role in the global energy balance of the Earth by transporting the excess solar heat from the tropics to the poles. Due to the rotation of the earth around its own axis and the tilt of this axis in relation to its orbit around the sun, the simple circulation that would be expected for a stationary earth is disrupted in complex but explainable ocean and air circulation patterns. It is due to this global nature of the behaviour of the atmosphere and oceans and its impact on human existence that weather and climate scientists have for a long time found it useful to work collectively across political borders/boundaries, beyond artificial confines of scientific disciplines and diversity of institutions to provide an understanding of the earth system and its interactions for the benefit of humankind.
The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon in the tropical Pacific Ocean (a phenomenon well understood and observed by the international scientific community) is known to affect rainfall and temperature patterns in most parts of the African continent, including South Africa. In Southern Africa El Niño triggers the most severe droughts while floods tend to occur more often during La Niña conditions. Links have also been shown between sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic and Indian Oceans and summer rainfall in Africa. The heating in Angola has a direct impact on cloud band development over Southern Africa, which is an important source of South Africa’s summer rainfall.
It is clear from examples illustrated above that weather and climate studies have to be an international endeavour and require co-ordination at an international level to ensure that norms and standards are adhered to and that nations complement each other’s efforts. This international coordination is also important for ensuring that capacity development takes place to bridge the gap between those more developed and the less developed countries, through sharing and transfer of technology. This is the reason why many countries created the International Meteorological Organisation (IMO) which later became the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) created as a specialized agency of the United Nations. WMO promotes the efficient exchange of data as well as weather and climate knowledge between the nations of the world. Even during the years of apartheid, when South Africa was ostracized from the international community and treated as a pariah state, it was obliged to enter its meteorological data into the global telecommunications system to allow other nations to create weather and climate forecasts and vice versa.
With the advent of climate change, where both the magnitude and frequency of severe weather events are globally on the increase, as alluded to in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the poor weather observations and data communication infrastructure on the African continent have become a serious challenge to providing effective weather and climate services on the continent. Africa has arguably the poorest meteorological observations coverage on the globe. Weather observations are collected from all over the country and surrounding areas and are used as input data in prediction models to produce weather and climate forecasts. The cost of meteorological equipment to measure atmospheric parameters such as temperature, wind and rainfall and the costs to avail the data on the global telecommunication system are prohibitive and simply unaffordable to many African countries. Long time series of weather observations need to be maintained to detect climate change and trends. Moreover, it has been shown in many international fora on weather and climate benefits that investments in weather related technology and capacity provide excellent financial returns in addition to the societal benefits. The costs for upper air observations are even higher and yet upper air observations are critical for safe air travel, the detailed analysis of weather systems and climatology. Remote sensing techniques using satellites have provided great assistance, but in situ observations are still critical at this stage.
In South Africa, for example, and especially post-2001, when South Africa was readmitted to many international fora and under a new government, support for the Weather Service has increased, resulting in an increase in the quantity of meteorological observations and improved forecast quality. The first steps of support were in the conversion of the then Weather Bureau into a modern South African Weather Service (SAWS) which spent a lot of time in its formative years planning the evolution and further development of services to the general public and decision-makers.
The SAWS and the National Meteorological Agency of Ethiopia has, in recent years, rolled out its strategic plan by expanding modern weather and climate observation equipment, including data collection technologies such as: automatic weather stations, automatic rainfall stations, new weather radars, a lighting detection system and new weather prediction models. This new technological capability forms the basis of Ethiopia’s and South Africa’s weather and climate forecasting ability and plans are underway to enhance related socio-economic applications particularly for Health, Water Resource Management, Food Security and Disaster Management. The strong support of national government and the state is, however, not universally shared in Africa with most/some national weather services still having insufficient and outdated capability. On the other hand, individual country’s prediction capability also relies on quality weather observations from other countries and surrounding oceans. Any further enhancement of the national forecasting capability will have to include infrastructure improvement (observations, capacity building and data communications) in neighbouring countries.
The latter situation places the importance of collaboration with our neighbours and other international players into perspective. Weather observations from the surrounding countries and oceans are of strategic importance to South Africa and Ethiopia. Nations’ socio-economic planning, resource management and decision making relies much on weather, climate forecasts and information. It is, therefore, of strategic importance to build collaboration amongst national weather services in the region and beyond. It is through this international collaboration that the costs can be shared amongst parties. Furthermore, international development partners are increasingly willing to initiate projects and provide resources to regions rather than individual countries.
In essence, further improvement of Africa’s weather and climate forecast capability relies much on international collaboration. The socio-economic benefits in Africa, which are derived from meteorological forecasts and information, therefore also depend on the each country’s efforts to build international cooperation with neighbours and other international partners.
African countries like Ethiopia and South Africa will need to move speedily to improve collaboration with local stakeholders for the enhancement of related socio-economic applications particularly for the identified key sectors. These interventions in the meteorology discipline are essential if we are to make an impressionable contribution to the highlighted government priorities.