A crushing drought in the Horn Africa in 2017 caused severe water security, destroyed crops and exposed Kenya, Somalia and Sudan to chronic hunger. Uganda was not spared either and the country’s pastureland and fertile fields were turned into brown and dry red clay, causing over nine million Ugandans to be at the mercy of food aid, according to the Office of the Prime Minister Department of Disaster Preparedness and Management 2017 update.
This triggered Ugandan government into urgent action through an ambitious modernisation of its weather, water, and climate monitoring systems to bolster resilience and improve lives and livelihoods as well as forestalling any such future humanitarian disasters.
With financing from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), help from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment, the Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems (SCIEWS) project in Uganda is now one of the most robust weather monitoring systems in East Africa, according to Onesimus Muhwezi, team leader, Environment, Climate and Disaster Resilience at UNDP, Uganda.
Muhwezi, in an exclusive interview, told SciDev.Net that the project is facilitating real-time delivery of climate information including early warnings to aid decision making.
The project, which started in 2014 operationally and closed on 30 June 2018, he said, received a GEF grant of US$4 million and co-financed from UNDP and the Ugandan government with almost US$7 million. The design of a follow on project has commenced, Muhezwi said.
Why improve weather monitoring?
Agriculture is the backbone of Uganda’s economy, employing 70 per cent of the population, and contributes half of Uganda’s export earnings and a quarter of the country’s national wealth, Muhezwi explained. It is critical to reducing poverty, boosting prosperity and creating jobs, especially for women and youth.
The country’s farming system mostly relies on the rain. Unfortunately, seasonal rainfall has become more variable and less predictable, with consequences for fluctuating yields.
Crop and animal pests such as the fall armyworm linked to climate change have become an increasing problem, increased the vulnerability of smallholder farmers who are unable to invest in irrigation or insure their crops and animals.
“Reliable information is important for compensating farmers in the event of a loss caused by bad weather such as flooding and drought, thus reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience of famers,” Muhezwi explained.
Farmers are accessing and using meteorological and hydrological data collected through a network of manual and automated weather stations.
Radio remains the best tool for disseminating weather information due to its wide coverage in the communities and local radio stations with coverage of up to 90 per cent of the districts and regions are airing weather and climate information for free each month, Muhwezi added.
“Now, when we get news about the weather on the radio, we can make a plan. If we know it is going to rain, we can dig a trench so that water can pass through without destroying our plants,” said Haruna Masaba, a farmer from Nakhabago Village in eastern Uganda.
With real-time information and agricultural advisories, according to Masaba, farmers get information such as when to plant, harvest, and to take their crops to market, thus increasing the resilience of communities to climate shocks and improving food security.
Following Uganda’s example
This model used by Uganda, according to Muhwezi, can be replicated in other Africa countries. “The model has demonstrated that generating evidence is critical for making a business case for integrating climate information in development and increasing financing for national meteorological services.
”Commenting on the Ugandan project, William Ndegwa who is Kitui County’s director at the Kenya Meteorological Department, says enhanced modernisation of meteorological observations in the form of automated weather stations in Sub-Saharan Africa has been going on since the late 20th century after the Rio summit in 1992.
“The stations have potential to detect significant changes with short moments - second, hourly or daily - weather and disseminate through the distribution networks as dictated by end user requirements,” he says.
Information from the automated weather stations helps the meteorological service to increase the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts and warnings.But the extent to which the information from the automated weather stations benefit agriculture and smallholder farmers is dependent on the form in which data is accessible to farmers, Ndegwa said.
The current approaches being used in most meteorological systems are such that agriculture and smallholder farmers are secondary, if not third or fourth recipients and thereby the value attributes of such data is reduced.
Projects modernising meteorological observations for use by smallholder farmers should rethink the method of access and archival of data to allow the consumer get first-hand values of the data.
Cover image credit: Photo by Andrea Egan, Luke McPake, and UNDP Uganda
This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.