Underfunded weather stations threaten disasters in Africa

VSAT satellites at the Kenya Meteorological Department headquarters, Nairobi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Nairobi]

The climate crisis is increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heatwaves, with Africa expected to be among the global regions hit hardest.

Yet the systems and technologies across the continent that monitor and forecast weather events and changes to water levels are “missing, outmoded or malfunctioning” – leaving African populations even more exposed to climate change.

This is according to a team of risk experts and climatologists from the UK and Africa led by the University of Cambridge, who warn that without major and rapid upgrades to “hydromet infrastructure”, the damage and death toll caused by climate-related disasters across Africa will “balloon”.

Writing in the journal Nature, the authors point to latest research showing that – over the past two decades – the average number of deaths caused by a flooding event in Africa is four times higher than the European and North American average per flood.

When investigating this disparity, the team looked at World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) data and found the entire continent of Africa has just six per cent of the number of radar stations as the US and Europe’s combined total, despite having a comparable population size and a third more land.

A spot check in Kenya reveals that the country operates 37 manned synoptic weather stations, responsible for capturing weather data around the clock.

While this is a step in the right direction, it falls short of providing complete coverage. But, the reality is that establishing just one synoptic weather station can incur a cost of up to Sh30 million. This financial burden becomes magnified when considering the need to deploy stations across all 47 counties in Kenya.

According to Dr Richard Muita assistant director climate services at Met Department “While the technical capacity exists for early warning systems,” Muita noted, “the onus lies on governments to invest in adaptation and mitigation strategies.”

 He emphasizes the role of governmental policies in tackling issues like deforestation, air pollution, and global warming, which directly impact weather patterns. Muita stressed that Kenya’s meteorological agencies can provide information and advisory support, but the broader responsibility of addressing these challenges lies with the government.

On why governments hesitate to invest in weather stations, Dr Muita points to the substantial costs involved. He acknowledges the presence of competing priorities, such as employment and economic stability, that make it challenging for governments to allocate significant resources to meteorological infrastructure.

 An automatic weather station, for example, can cost around Sh8 million. This financial burden often leads to a staggered investment approach, with African governments allocating resources sporadically across multiple projects.

Furthermore, Muita  highlighted the contribution of private entities that operate their own weather stations. This decentralisation of efforts partly stems from the expense associated with establishing government-owned stations. However, it also raises concerns about data sharing and coordination.

Efforts are being made to address this gap. Muita says the Kenya Meteorological Department is developing a policy to regulate the establishment and operation of weather stations.

Radar stations detect weather fluctuations and rainfall as well as long-term climate trends, and are vital for the forewarning of impending floods and other meteorological events. Africa has just 37 such stations.

Moreover, WMO data shows that more than 50 per cent of the radar stations that do currently operate across Africa are unable to produce accurate enough data to predict weather patterns for the coming days or even hours.  

The research team calls on the international community to boost funding for systems that mitigate risks to life from climate disasters. Currently, just $0.47 (Sh 67.83) of every $100 (Sh14,432) spent on global development aid goes towards disaster risk reduction of any kind.

“The vast gaps in Africa’s disaster reduction systems are in danger of rendering other aid investments redundant,” said Dr Asaf Tzachor, co-lead author and research affiliate at Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

“For example, there is little point investing in smallholder farms if floods are simply going to wash away seeds, agrochemicals, and machinery.”

Early warning systems need to be expanded, and provide clear directions to evacuate in local dialects.

“Over 80 percent of Africans have access to a mobile network, so text messages could be a powerful way to deliver targeted warnings,” said co-lead author Dr Catherine Richards, also from CSER at the University of Cambridge.  

 The World Bank has estimated a $1.5 billion price tag for continent-wide hydromet systems, but it would save African countries from $13 billion in asset losses and $22 billion in livelihood losses annually.

The climate crisis is increasing the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and heatwaves, with Africa expected to be among the global regions hit hardest.