Extreme Variability: the importance of increasing climate change research in Sub-Saharan Africa

Guest post by Yaa Oparebea Ampofo

Summary:

  • Droughts and famine in Africa, are often discussed as humanitarian, political and economic issues. While important not to obscure the role of political economy, African policy makers and humanitarian actors must also remember to engage with drought as a scientific issue, and strategize on how to tackle such extreme natural disasters through the lens of climate science.
  • We do not have consensus on the forecasted weather patterns for the region in part due to a lack of investment in local data collection on weather patterns. Nonetheless, despite this uncertainty, it is agreed that the weather in the region will become ever more unpredictable and extreme.
  • As African governments and the international community look for ways to deal with recurring cycles of drought and resulting hunger, it is important to strengthen the state of African climate science and research development. Robust scientific mechanisms to study and analyze weather patterns on a more regional level will be a critical tool to help governments and local communities prepare for, adapt to and mitigate impacts of impending food shortages on the continent.
  • African governments and leaders should commit to investing in African climate change research especially given the new Trump administration’s disregard for environmental regulations and outright rejection of climate change.

Droughts and famine in many parts of East and West Africa are often discussed as humanitarian, political and economic issues. While it is important not to obscure the role that the political economy plays in these natural disasters, I argue that African policy makers and humanitarian actors must also remember to engage with droughts as a scientific issue, and strategize on how to tackle such natural disasters through a lens of climate science. The cyclical droughts in the Horn of Africa are triggered by La Niña, when warm sea surface temperatures in the West Pacific leads to reduced rainfall in the region. According to data from NASA, this past year, overall temperatures in this region averaged between 0.5° C and 2° C warmer than previous years. This means that any droughts are exacerbated by an increased rate of moisture evaporation on land and in water bodies. As this data shows, the impact of climate change cannot be sidelined, but should be in-built into drought and famine assessment mechanisms.

What is the link between current climate change effects across the globe and the on-going droughts in East Africa? Answer: We don’t know. Right now, the connection between the droughts in East Africa and climate change is highly inconclusive and often contradictory. While the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicted that the Horn of Africa region would become wetter with increasing temperatures, other researchers forecast the continuation of such droughts. Despite this uncertainty, we do know that the weather in this region, as in the rest of the world, will increasingly become more unpredictable and extreme. The majority of African countries do not have sufficient data-collection systems to be able to build and run the kind of models that would better present climate change impacts on Africa.

Source: Strauss Center’s Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS)

Unfortunately, the reality is that investing in research on African weather patterns is not a priority in many countries on the continent. Climate change research is seen as something that only the “developed” world can afford to think about. Instead, sectors like healthcare and education are seen as more pressing and requiring more immediate attention and financial support. This issue is all the more important to address by African leaders given the new Trump administration which has signaled that the US government will be slashing funding for global climate change research while denying the very existence of climate change. It is therefore imperative that African governments, leaders, and policy makers take the lead on increasing local climate change research and data collection on the continent.

Current research conducted on climate change in Africa tends to be done in areas where data is easier to be collected due to strong political stability and the use of English (the unofficial lingua franca of science), e.g. Kenya, South Africa, Ghana. This leaves out countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and other areas where the need for better local data is great. In order to better address drought crises that many countries in Africa repeatedly face, it is important to acknowledge the role that climate science should play. United Nations scientists estimate that 9 out of 10 small-scale farmers are unlikely to farm by 2100 due to drying soils and global warming plus extreme weather may cause 180 million unnecessary African deaths, according to Christian Aid. As African governments and the international community look for ways to deal with these recurring cycles of drought and resulting hunger, it is important for such actors to strengthen the state of African climate science and research development. There needs to be more collaboration between governments and scientific institutions to provide better climate data –  for example, with NGOs who provide humanitarian relief – in order to build the capacity to identify and prepare for climate-related disasters.

Climate change scientists suggest that humanitarian disasters such as the current East African drought are going to be the ‘new normal’ for which we need to be prepared. Given the scale of crippling climate change effects to African communities, a commitment to developing robust scientific mechanisms to study and analyze weather patterns at a regional level will be a critical tool to help governments and local communities prepare for, adapt to and mitigate impacts of impending food shortages on the continent.

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About the Author:

 

Yaa Oparebea Ampofo grew up in Accra, Ghana and received her Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Studies from Yale University in 2016, with a concentration in Food Security and Agriculture. Her research interests include indigenous knowledge preservation, political ecology, resource management, urban sustainability and environmental education. Yaa has been heavily involved in the Yale Africa Initiative, which saw the creation of the Yale Young African Scholars Program. The program was developed by herself and other African undergraduate and graduate students at Yale, who aimed to create a forum for talented high school students in Africa that combined academic programming with a focus on higher education.  In this role, she has been an instructor and mentor for high school students across the African continent over the last three years. Yaa previously served as the President of the Yale Association for African Peace and Development. Find Yaa on Twitter at @Oparebea_.

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