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23.10.2013 - Natural Sciences Sector

Innovative drought monitoring project for sub-Saharan Africa featured in IFRC World Disasters Report 2013

© IFRC

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) released its annual World Disasters Report on 17 October 2013 focusing on how technology can directly reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience against disasters. This year's report presents individuals and organizations that are actively engaged in relevant work towards disaster prevention. Among these, the report highlights two innovative UNESCO projects on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR): the World Map of UNESCO's Points of Interest and a Drought monitoring and prediction project for sub-Saharan Africa.

Drought is one of the leading impediments to development in Africa. Much of the continent is dependent on rain-fed agriculture, which makes it particularly susceptible to climate variability. Recurring drought conditions in many regions of Africa, most recently in eastern Africa, have had devastating humanitarian impacts and impose significant reductions in gross domestic product for countries whose economies are tied to agriculture. Climate change and population pressures make the prospect for continued drought impacts and water scarcity more worrisome. Alleviating the impacts of drought across sub-Saharan Africa requires a transition from crisis management to risk management and reduction, including developing national drought policies, increasing coping capacity and adapting to likely future changes at local levels.

A key element in managing drought risk is the provision of early warning of developing drought conditions and impacts. Such information can provide governments with the lead-time necessary to implement drought management policies and reduce impacts at all levels. However obtaining the data needed to identify drought risks is challenging, especially in remote areas with unreliable monitoring networks and insufficient national capacity.

In collaboration with the UNESCO, Princeton University has developed an experimental drought monitoring and forecast system for sub-Saharan Africa. The system merges climate predictions, hydrological models and remote sensing data to provide timely and useful information on drought in regions where institutional capacity is generally lacking and the access to information and technology prevents the development of systems locally. The system’s key elements are the provision of near real-time evaluations of the terrestrial water cycle and an assessment of drought conditions.

A key element of the system’s development is the transition and testing of the technology for operational usage by African collaborators. In 2012, workshops were held in two regional centres – in Niger (for West African countries) and in Kenya (covering countries of the Greater Horn of Africa) – to train local scientists to run the system and interpret the data output. A third workshop will be held in southern Africa. Several challenges have been identified through ongoing discussion with African collaborators for the continued development and use of the system, which could become a key step forward in building capacity through technology and knowledge transfer. In particular, the application of hydrological and climate research into transferable technology with minimal overhead has been made possible and has the potential to reduce the impacts of drought across Africa.

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