SENDAFA, Ethiopia (AlertNet) – Farmers in Ethiopia struggling to cope with unpredictable weather related to climate change have gained access to a trove of meteorological data through a new government website.
The geographically precise information, culled from local records and combined with satellite measurements, may enable them to spot trends in changing weather patterns to improve their crop yields.
In Sendafa, a town 40 km (25 miles) north of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, farmers come to the Saturday market to trade livestock and dairy products and to buy coffee, salt and other commodities. Once business is over, talk often turns to the weather and how it may affect their livelihoods.
Sitting in a makeshift bar, farmer Tesfaye Lema spoke recently with an old man sipping areke, a traditional homemade liquor.
“The rain is poor these days; they were saying on the radio that the belg crops will suffer,” Lema said, referring to crops that traditionally grow after the early spring rains.
“At this time of the year, we always receive poor rains,” his drinking companion replied. “It has always been like this, but it should all be good beginning (in) June. What do the radio people know?”
Rain is the lifeline of the subsistence farming that largely defines Ethiopia’s poor but growing economy. Uncertainty over changing patterns – and how to respond to them – is one reason farmers such as Lema are excited about the possibility of access to free, accurate meteorological information.
“That’s everything ... I would know when to plant my crops and when not to, (judging) from past trends,” he said.
FREE HISTORICAL DATA
The website of Ethiopia’s National Meteorological Agency (NMA) now offers a wealth of high-quality data, including nearly 30 years of rainfall and temperature records on a 10-day timescale, incorporating measurements from rain gauges, temperature stations and satellites.
“What this means is anybody can go online to visit our website, select any location in the country, and ask for – and instantly receive for free – detailed climate and related information about that specific location recorded over the past 28 years,” said Kinfe Hailemariam, who headed the committee that developed the service.
All the data are available online at a resolution of 10 km by 10 km (about 6 miles by 6 miles), making it accessible at the level of districts, zones and regions, or any point defined by users, said Hailemariam. The website includes statistical tools to help analyse the data.
“From agriculture investment to a simple choice of sightseeing at that location at any particular time, the available information arms one to make an informed decision,” he added.
The five climate and meteorological experts who developed the service wrote in a recently published paper that although climate information has been used in Ethiopia for decades, particularly for drought monitoring and early warning, the availability, access and use of climate data was not efficient.
The country’s weather stations were distributed unevenly throughout the country, mainly limited to cities and towns along the main roads.
“This limits the availability of climate information and services for rural communities. Where records do exist, they frequently suffer from data gaps and poor quality and are often not easily accessible. This, in turn, has limited the use of the available climate data,” the researchers wrote.
FILLING THE GAPS
They explain that the new website uses records from more than 600 rain gauge stations, combined with 30 years of satellite-derived rainfall estimates. Temperature data from over 300 weather stations are merged with satellite estimates of land temperatures using moderate resolution imaging spectroradiometer (MODIS) technology.
The National Meteorological Agency upgraded its website with technical support from the International Research Institute of Columbia University in the United States and the UK’s Reading University, and financial support from Google Earth.
The researchers say the Ethiopian experience is a promising template for improving climate services throughout Africa, since the available satellite data covers the whole of the continent, and the methodologies and computer applications can easily be adapted for other countries.
“Carrying out similar projects in other countries should now be cheaper and faster,” they wrote in their paper.
Hailu Wudineh, a spokesman for the National Meteorological Agency, said it currently operates about 1,200 conventional monitoring stations and 25 automatic stations, as well as an upper-air radiosonde instrument in Addis Ababa that monitors the surroundings for 20 vertical kilometres (12 miles).
Integrating the data with the satellite images it receives every fifteen minutes from a European Union meteorological satellite, the agency offers regularly updated short- and longer-term weather forecasts.
The agency plans to use World Bank aid to install a radar system in Bahir Dar City, 580 km (360 miles) northwest of Addis Ababa “to improve our data collection capacity to better read and monitor the country’s atmosphere,” Wudineh said.
According to agency officials, training key target groups and the wider public to better manipulate the available data is their next step. However, they are facing two challenges in promoting and sustaining the service.
“One is keeping our skilled professionals from being drawn (to) high-paying private and other sector job offers. The other is the Internet: it goes off at times and it leaves us (in a) very awkward position to sustain our service and provide updated data,” said the agency’s Hailemariam.
Ethio-Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-run and sole telecommunications provider, is currently driving a surge in mobile phone use – and Internet access - this year after cutting the cost of SIM cards to about $3. However, users complain about poor service and the difficulty of accessing the Internet via mobile phones.
Nevertheless, farmers like Tesfaye Lema say that if they receive training they plan to use the agency’s website to make their farming efforts more climate-resilient.
Kirubel Tadesse is a freelance writer based in Addis Ababa.