Anticipating, managing and responding to climate risk in East and Southern Africa

First-of-its-kind regional training brought together 11 African national meteorological services to build foundational knowledge and skills for climate adaptation.

As world leaders came together in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021 to kick off the 26th UN Climate Change conference, staff from nearly a dozen African national meteorological services were gathered in a training room 4,000 miles away, in Kampala, Uganda, learning how to help make their countries more climate-ready and resilient.

"If there is one issue that unites us, it is climate," said Isaac Magume, Forecasting Director of the Uganda National Meteorology Authority, speaking to his counterparts from across East and Southern Africa who knew all too well the urgency of addressing the call for climate action.

The workshop in Kampala represented the first-of-its-kind training at the regional level to build foundational capacity to anticipate, manage, and respond to climate-related disasters and risks. Forty-four participants, representing 11 national meteorological agencies and one regional climate center, attended the intensive, six-day event.

Participants from Ethiopia and Zambia pause for a photo. The regional training provided opportunities to share experiences and knowledge among countries on the implementation and use of state-of-the-art climate services tools and methods.

The workshop aimed to address the region's exigent need for high-quality, timely, and useful climate information and services.

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) organized the regional training as part of the Accelerating Impacts of CGIAR Climate Research for Africa project (AICCRA) project.

Staff from the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) also helped lead and coordinate some of the training sessions.

East and Southern Africa, where agriculture is a critical part of the economy, has been experiencing increasingly erratic rainfall and temperature patterns. But countries in this part of the world possess the least adaptive capacity to manage the risks that come with these climatic changes.

Solutions are urgently and critically needed. That’s where AICCRA comes in.

Through its commitment to help build better climate information services in Africa and through its convening power that enables regional knowledge generation and sharing, the project is uniquely positioned to accelerate and rapidly scale the adoption of climate services and innovations to meet this need.

The November training event consisted of three parallel capacity building workshops on specific tools, platforms, and approaches to ensure that climate data is transformed into high-quality information, which in turn is transformed into useful services.

These workshops were on: the Climate Data Tool (CDT) and Automatic Weather Station Data Tool (ADT); IRI's Data Library and Maprooms; and seasonal forecasting approaches.

It all starts with the data

The Climate Data Tool (CDT) helps technical staff at national meteorological services ensure that the climate data that underpins all climate services is high-quality and error-free. A free, open-source, R-based software package with a graphical interface, CDT streamlines and facilitates many of the processes that meteorological service staff regularly undertake.

“Doing this training as a region was very valuable. We now understand that some countries are ahead in the use of CDT, while others are still stuck. When you bring us all together, we can share experiences and see what other countries are doing.”

These include assessing and correcting data quality, organizing and merging weather station observations with various types of proxy data, and analyzing and visualizing gridded datasets.

IRI co-developed and tested CDT over five years with national meteorological services across Africa to ensure it would become a useful and intuitive tool.

The web-based Automatic Weather Station Data Tool (ADT) solves a common challenge that most meteorological service face: accessing and processing massive amounts of data from automatic weather stations collected by different systems and networks in various proprietary formats.

ADT drastically cuts down on the staff time and effort required to this and offers quality control and visualization functions. The AICCRA East and Southern Africa training provided advanced training on CDT and an introduction to ADT.

Tying data and information to decisions

The IRI Data Library platform and its maprooms, which are highly customizable, visualization and analysis tools, help meteorological agencies ensure that their data can be used to inform actual decisions and answer questions such as:

  • When is the rainy season likely to start in a specific location, so that farmers there know when to plant?
  • What is the risk of a long dry spell occurring in the coming growing season, so that farmers can change their seed varieties or make other investments?

The maprooms are co-created with stakeholders, helping users translate information about past, present, or future climate conditions into actionable knowledge.

They are now available in all countries that partook in the AICCRA training in Kampala.

In a big win for cross-border innovation, the regional nature of the training enabled significant knowledge sharing and strengthening of international collaboration for the delivery of climate services, two of the main aims of AICCRA.

For example, several participants noted that when they saw Ethiopia's extensive suite of maprooms, they were motivated to articulate and anticipate maproom wants and needs for their countries.

Training staff from many countries at the same time allowed IRI and AICCRA partners responsible for regional capacity building to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of its constituent states.

"Conducting this as a regional training for many countries was very valuable," explained Ismael Lutta, ICPAC's Climate Data Management Assistant.

"We now understand that some countries are ahead in the use of the Climate Data Tool, for example, while others are still stuck. When you bring us all together, we can share experiences and see what others are doing."

Participants from Ethiopia practice running advanced CDT functions during group work. CDT is an important tool for cleaning, analysing, and visualizing climate data.

Giving a boost to seasonal forecasting capacity

Seasonal Forecasting Approaches, which was the third parallel workshop, also benefited from a regional format. This training provided forecasters with the theoretical background and practical skills to generate objective, high-skill seasonal climate forecasts, using IRI's "NextGen" approach combined with a method developed by ICPAC.

NextGen is an approach to producing climate forecasts at timescales of weeks to months based on more than 25 years of research at IRI.

"If I had to explain the NextGen approach and its advantages to a non-technical person, I'd say that it enables the making of objective and tailored seasonal forecasts,” said Keenness Mng'anda, a forecaster from Malawi's Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, and one of the workshop trainees.

"Having an objective seasonal forecast is very important and means that you are coming up with your conclusions based on actual evidence, such as the skill of the forecasts. And having tailored forecasts is important because rainfall varies a lot in space and time. Even if you move just a few kilometres, you might find that it is raining in one place and not another. It's crucial to capture, account for, and predict this at the most local level, as it has big implications for agriculture. NextGen makes this possible," Mng'anda said.

Seven of the 17 participants of the seasonal forecasting workshop were women.

“For this training, we had many women. It really builds our confidence. We can do it. Even for the difficult things like programming languages, we are here. I am out here doing it! Women can be powerful and very strong! It is not only men.”

Doreen Anande, Meteorologist, Tanzania Meteorological Agency

The AICCRA project recognizes the importance of including women in capacity-building efforts in order to ensure that the perspective of women is integrated into the development of climate services in Africa.

These efforts also strengthen the position of women as scientists, meteorologists, and leaders in decision making for climate adaptation. As such, the organizers made intentional efforts to include female meteorologists and data managers among the participants. 

"For this training, we had many women," said Doreen Anande, a meteorologist at the Tanzania Meteorology Agency.

"It really builds our confidence. We can do it. Even for the difficult things like programming languages, we are here. I am out here doing it! Women can be powerful and strong! It is not only men."

Regionally-focused training workshops like this help extend the reach of AICRRA far beyond the project’s target countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zambia, generating spillover benefits for countries facing similar challenges.

"Weather and climate are at the center of everything. This is not something you can hide away from," Magume reminded participants in his final remarks.

Thanks to the AICCRA project, the region is not hiding from but tackling these issues head-on.

Doreen Anande of the Tanzania Meteorological Agency consults her notes as she practices producing the forecast for her country using the NextGen approach.  Women are important agents of innovation for climate adaptation.

Amanda Grossi is ACToday Country Manager for Senegal and Ethiopia