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The ENACTS Approach: Data at the Front Lines of Africa’s Climate Crisis

By David Stevens

Ethiopia is once again facing a food crisis. A crippling drought and the failure of successive plantings have left the country once again on the brink of disaster, with 10.2 million people considered food insecure. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that the drought now threatens two key planting seasons, the belg and the meher—which alone produce up to 85 percent of country’s food—and that without considerable support, Ethiopia’s farmers and herders will have difficulty feeding the country between now and September. As of a January 2016 UNICEF Report, 1.7 million children and pregnant women were in need of additional nutrition, and 435,000 children suffered from severe acute malnutrition. 5.8 million people require access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

The effects of the drought are much larger than nutrition; economic production and education have also suffered greatly. UNICEF reports that nearly 3,000 schools are at risk of closure due to the drought, and 2 million children are at risk of dropping out. The drought could also increase political instability in the region, as Ethiopia is home to 730,000 refugees from neighboring Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. And with recent tension surrounding the sale of productive agricultural land to foreign investors and the now cancelled expansion of the Addis Ababa capital region into the surrounding Oromia region—a process which is said will displace farmers from their land—the impacts of continued drought and a volatile climate will be felt throughout all aspects of political and economic life. 

That climate vulnerability will be a continuing factor in all aspects of Ethiopian life is a reality that many have come to accept. And Ethiopia is not alone in having to confront this new reality. From Lesotho to the Sahel, African countries are grappling with the medium- and long-term impacts that climate change will have on their peoples, economies, and politics.  However, even as they grapple with these issues, too many governments are lacking the basic data necessary to make informed predictions and plans. 

In many regions, difficult geography and terrain, from mountains to dense forest to expansive desert, hamper the installation of a robust climate observation network outside of major cities and towns. Political instability has also played a role in the lack of adequate data as climate observation stations are destroyed, or are never installed where it is too dangerous to do so. Finally, lack of investment on the part of many of the region’s cash-strapped countries has left climate data infrastructure sorely lacking. As a result, countries now grappling with the most severe effects of climate change are finding themselves without the necessary data to fully address the issue or direct resources to where they would be of most use.

Cumulative rainfall anomaly (the cumulative rainfall minus the mean for the period), for June to Sept. 2015.

Stepping in to address the issues of climate data availability is a team from International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Led by Dr. Tufa Dinku, Research Scientist in the Environmental Monitoring Program of IRI, they have developed an initiative to improve climate data collection and distribution in low resource areas. The Enhancing National Climate Services system (ENACTS), which is detailed in a paper released today by the World Policy Institute’s Program for African Thought, is a “multi-faceted initiative designed to bring climate knowledge into national decision making by improving availability, access to, and use of climate information.” 

ENACTS objectives are three-fold: to improve the availability and quality of climate data, to increase access to that data, and to promote the use of that data by key stakeholders at all levels. ENACTS does this by combining data available from the National Meteorological Services with data from proxies such as satellite estimates for rainfall, and digital elevation models and reanalysis products for temperature. These proxies are freely available and, crucially, are spatially complete—allowing researchers to accurately estimate conditions even where there is no reporting station, increasing coverage to even the most remote areas. Crucially, the data from these proxies can go back as far as 30 to 50 years for many variables, allowing stakeholders to better understand long-term climate trends.

Along with the creation of information products, ENACTS prioritizes information dissemination to all relevant stakeholders. It does so by utilizing publicly available “Map Rooms” that provide climate data and information products and by providing training and hands-on experience to users. In Ethiopia, this has taken the form of working with the Climate and Health Working Group as well as consulting with agriculture experts and other water users through workshops held with the National Meteorology Agency of Ethiopia. In Madagascar, the ENACTS team partnered with the Madagascar Meteorological Agency to provide workshops for the health and environmental sectors. And in Tanzania, rollout was accompanied by workshops focusing on how ENACTS data can be used in the fight against malaria through the development of early warning systems and impact assessments.

To date ENACTS has been launched in eight countries across Africa: The Gambia, Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Madagascar, and Zambia, with rollout in Kenya underway. Rollout in Uganda will begin in the coming months.

Ethiopia is just one of a number of countries facing the severe impacts of climate change. Africa as a whole is at the front line in the effort to develop resilient systems that, even in low resource environments, can help governments mitigate the worst effects of climate change. With ENACTS, they have an additional important tool at their disposal.

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David Stevens is the director of the Program for African Thought at the World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Oxfam]

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