The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lack of weather data in Africa is thwarting critical climate research

An employee walks toward the weather station at the Narok Meteorological Department headquarters. (Sarah Waiswa for The Washington Post)

NAROK, Kenya — It’s a problem that top climate scientists, local meteorologists and rural farmers all desperately want solved.

Africa has just one-eighth the minimum density of weather stations recommended by the World Meteorological Organization, which means there is a problematic lack of data about dozens of countries that are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

On the ground, the dearth of data has meant inaccurate forecasts and poor or nonexistent early-warning systems for people increasingly experiencing deadly cyclones, prolonged droughts and intense floods. In the academic world, researchers say the lack of data has led to challenges in measuring the extent of climate change. And for leaders preparing for the United Nations climate summit this fall, the absence of hard numbers could make it difficult to prove global warming’s impact on the continent, said Izidine Pinto, one of the authors of a recent landmark U.N. climate report.

“This is one of the biggest problems in Africa,” Pinto said of the data inequity, which is also notable in large parts of South America and increasingly drawing international attention. “You cannot research without data. You cannot do anything.”

The scarcity, he noted, was made jarringly clear by a mostly blank map of the continent in that U.N. report showing places where there had been evidence of extreme rainfall. In seven of Africa’s nine regions, the report found, there was not enough data to plot the map.

Some of the reasons for the data gap — namely, lack of reliable government funding, staffing and technological infrastructure — are evident in Narok county, a largely rural jurisdiction 90 miles west of Nairobi in the Great Rift Valley that’s home to some of Kenya’s most famous, and most fragile, ecosystems, including the Maasai Mara game reserve and the Mau Forest.

But there’s also a potential solution in Narok that offers a window into the rapidly expanding field of weather-related public-private partnerships — which scientists say can have drawbacks but could be critical to increasing data collection on the continent. The idea is to install across the continent simple, relatively inexpensive weather stations like the one at Ole Tipis, a girls’ boarding school outside the town of Narok. The station is one of 115 in Kenya run by the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory (TAHMO), which has a network of 626 stations in 20 countries in Africa.

The nonprofit shares its data with the Kenya Meteorological Department, the agency charged with providing official climate information and early warnings, and both are hoping to eventually use TAHMO’s data to strengthen government forecasts.

But there are still obstacles to integrating the private and public data, which means that data from TAHMO’s weather stations is used mostly for research and small-scale forecasting. And the obstacles only multiply in countries that are less stable and developed than Kenya.

For now, said a group of girls at Ole Tipis as they sat under an acacia tree during a geography club meeting, the weather station gives students a privilege shared by few others.

As the weather grows more unpredictable, it has allowed them to prepare.

‘Invest in the future’

Staring at his list of functioning weather stations, Peter Runanu, the director for meteorological services in Narok, knew he had just a fraction of the stations he wanted.

Facing him on the opposite wall at the county department was a poster underscoring what had not happened: “Invest in the future,” it read. “Observing weather, climate & water.”

Outside his small office, which is just outside Narok town, there is one government-run manual station where staff collect data daily to send to the Kenya Meteorological Department, which then uses it in forecasts. Throughout the rest of Narok county — an area of 1.1 million bordering Tanzania — there are just four government-run automatic stations, which are supposed to send weather data to the main office in Nairobi via online servers. But even those are not currently transmitting data to Nairobi, Runanu said, because of technological issues.

Runanu has also been reviewing data from the nine TAHMO stations in the county, including the one at Ole Tipis. But, like the rest of the government, he does not yet have the technological ability to integrate that data with his own to use it in forecasts.

In his ideal world, Runanu said, he’d collect data from 90 to 120 weather stations.

“Forecasting is a walk in the park with enough data,” said Runanu, 57. “You can’t do it without reliable information.”

The lack of stations, officials say, is the result of a lack of funding. In 2019, for example, the Kenya Meteorological Department received about $19.5 million of the $52.4 million it requested. That allocation decreased to just $13 million this year.

“People don’t understand us,” department director Stella Aura said. “Data provides a baseline. How do you know the weather is changing if you don’t know the baseline?”

The stakes are high in Narok county, where residents say frequent dry spells have meant substantially smaller harvests for farmers, who often depend on their crops for sustenance as well as a living. Increasingly intense rains have turned Narok town’s main road into a river and forced hundreds of people to be displaced in other parts of the county.

“If we do not act in earnest and with steadfastness,” a report about Narok published by the World Bank read, “our livelihood as a county is bound to fall into an abyss from the precipice on which it now hangs.”

For Runanu, the budget crunch means doing the best he can with what he has. He maintains a network of 14 volunteers who provide data for him from rain gauges. He fires off weekly forecasts to a WhatsApp group with more than 500 members. And he tries to reach people where they’re likely to pay attention — schools, churches, newspapers and radio broadcasts.

“Our aim,” he said, “is to issue timely, accurate and reliable weather information.”

But sometimes, the funding for those efforts runs out, too.

William Salau Supeyo, a Maasai farmer, used to help run a radio station that shared information from Runanu and the national meteorological department with more than 76,000 people, most of them farmers. After about a decade in operation, the station received a notice in 2019 saying its government funding had expired.

Supeyo is still hoping that funding will return. But the 59-year-old farmer, who has started selling off his cows to pay for his children’s schooling because he worries farming is no longer sustainable, said an equally big challenge is telling the world about what is happening here.

He said he doesn’t know what help the West can offer, but he imagines that help won’t come without proof of the changes he’s lived. So, he said, “weather stations are the most important thing.”

A crisis in the water is decimating this once-booming fishing town

A possible solution

On a recent day, the girls at Ole Tipis gathered around the weather station for a twice-monthly maintenance ritual, eyes fixed on the unobtrusive white pole with a sensor on top.

“Make sure when you wipe, you get rid of the dust,” said Debora Koikai, 16, standing on a chair as she carefully cleaned the station first with a cloth, then a pink toothbrush.

The idea behind the station was born 15 years ago when two professors with backgrounds in hydrology decided to try to build an effective but inexpensive weather station.

The $2,000 station that resulted is smaller and more mobile than most weather stations, and its data can be downloaded on a smartphone app. It measures factors including temperature, precipitation and wind speed, said Nick van de Giesen, TAHMO’s co-founder and a professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The cost is a fraction of the $54,000 the Kenya Meteorological Department said it pays for its stations.

TAHMO places its stations in schools for security and maintenance and to encourage students to learn about data.

In some countries, like Somalia and South Sudan, such operations are impossible because of conflict or instability. In others, governments viewed their arrival with distrust, van de Giesen said, because they worried about being undermined by private entities — which officials from the World Meteorological Organization have warned are trying in some cases to take their role as the “voice of weather.”

They were the world’s only all-female army. Their descendants are fighting to recapture their humanity.

Much of the distrust has been overcome in Kenya, with TAHMO assuring the meteorological department that it wants to bolster its work, not replace it.

But there’s still a long road ahead. Leaders at TAHMO are trying to move beyond their project-driven model, which leaves stations at risk of going offline when funding runs out, said van de Giesen. Integrating their data with that of the Kenya Meteorological Department would require more public funding, said Aura, to pay for an expensive server and for staff capable of processing data from the ground in real time, among other things. Fulfilling those needs is most likely to happen, she said, if the department is given more control over its budget by being made semiautonomous, a goal it has been pursuing for years.

Against that backdrop, Ole Tipis is in some ways a microcosm of what could be, and of the ways people are making do with what they have, now.

Each week, geography teacher Koech Robert studies the data collected from the station.

Then he shares his own informal predictions with his students, who in turn share them with their families. Robert said he wants to see TAHMO’s program expand. But the word-of-mouth system has already made a difference.

Last year, he said, about 20 families moved to safety before a major flood wiped away their homes.

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