New network of weather stations in Africa aims to improve food security and health

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 24 June 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2555
  1. John Zarocostas
  1. 1Geneva

    An ambitious project to deploy 5000 weather stations across Africa is expected to benefit the health of millions of people on the continent, experts say.

    “This project may help save lives and improve the livelihoods of communities in Africa living on the front line of climate change,” said Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general and president of the Global Humanitarian Forum, which is spearheading the project.

    “The world’s poorest are also the world’s most vulnerable when it comes to the impact of climate change and the least equipped to deal with the consequences,” Mr Annan said at the launch of the initiative on 18 June.

    The forum says that health agencies, governments, and local communities will be able to take preventive action if they have access to accurate weather information and thus early warning of climate sensitive infections and epidemics.

    Walter Fust, chief executive officer and director general of the Global Humanitarian Forum, said that the World Health Organization recently issued a list of 14 so called climate sensitive communicable diseases, including malaria, cholera, and dengue fever.

    In March WHO said that it estimated that around 150 000 deaths in low income countries each year resulted from four climate sensitive health outcomes: crop failure and malnutrition; diarrhoeal disease; malaria; and flooding. Almost 85% of these excess deaths were in young children.

    Mr Rogers said there was increasing evidence—from Ethiopia, for example—of malaria epidemics occurring in areas where the disease was not endemic before. However, there was a lack of data to quantify this change, he said. He added that WHO estimated that 445 million people were already exposed to malaria annually, resulting in more than 1.3 million deaths.

    The public-private project, the brainchild of Mr Annan’s forum, intends to provide “a massive increase in crucial information to predict and manage climate shocks” and to help close the “severe gap” in weather monitoring in Africa.

    Africa’s current network is eight times below the World Meteorological Organization’s recommended standard. It has fewer than 200 stations that meet the organisation’s requirements, whereas Europe, North America, and parts of Asia have several thousand each.

    The project, whose backers include Sweden’s Ericsson group, the World Meteorological Organization, and the telecommunications company Zain, intends to install automatic weather stations across Africa, mounted on new and existing mobile phone towers.

    The stations will transmit raw weather data to national meteorological services, which will then send forecasts and early warnings by text message, for example, to farmers, fishermen, and other users. Simple pictograms may be sent to mobile phones of those who cannot read, the forum says.

    The raw data will also be made freely available to scientists, researchers, and anyone who can use them for the public good, it says.

    David Rogers, president of the Health and Climate Foundation, which is based in Washington, DC, said that the improvement in weather data would have an effect on public safety information in the health field. He said that better data on changes in rainfall and temperature patterns could provide early warnings.

    The weather station data will also help to improve the quality of farming. Seventy per cent of Africa’s population relies on income from farming, and food security will be improved by better information on when to irrigate, when to use pesticides, and when to plant or harvest.

    The better the information is about the weather, said Mr Fust, the better that people can prepare, not only by avoiding disasters through early warnings but also by having access to better quality data, telling them what’s three or four weeks ahead.

    So far the project has deployed 19 stations around Lake Victoria in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, where each year 5000 people die in storms and weather related accidents.

    The forum estimates that it will cost about $9m (£5.5m; €6.4m) to cover all of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda with weather stations by 2012.

    Mr Fust said it ought to be feasible in five or seven years to install 5000 stations across the African continent, for a cost of roughly $30m.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2555

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