Rainfall data could help end famine, but politics are key: a research scientist explains
This is part of a series highlighting innovations and possibilities for action for the famine in Somalia. Most news frames the famine and political conflict as near unsolvable; we’re examining the on-the-ground measures that can help – from the large scale and political to the local and preventative.
The current crisis in Somalia is reaching epic proportions, as starving people are prevented from reaching refugee camps by Al-Shabab, the militia that controls much of the country. Aid workers are also struggling to provide for victims of the famine, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and led around 500,000 children to near-starvation, according to the New York Times.
Solutions to the Somali famine will not come easily, and we, the international community, will ultimately need to employ a multifaceted approach that accounts for intertwined environmental and socio-political issues.
Famine is part of a complex web of problems in places like Africa, where a confluence of weak postcolonial states and underdeveloped agricultural systems leave populations vulnerable to climate variations. Climate science is a critical factor in drought prevention, and one researcher based in the UK, David Grimes, is leading a project that will bring three decades’ worth of rainfall data to African scientists. Here he shares with Dowser the motivations behind the research and how he sees it potentially contributing to a solution for famine, despite the complex nature of the problem.
Dower: What is the relationship between climate change and famine in places like the Horn of Africa?
David Grimes: It’s a complicated issue, only some of it has to do with the climate, a lot of it has to do with the politics. Climate change is undoubtedly happening; the climate is getting warmer. With rainfall, there’s no clear signal as to whether someplace will increase in rain or decrease. The best predictions are that East Africa would get slightly more rainfall in the future; this is data from the IPCC, an international panel on climate change, the most authoritative body on the world’s climate – but this is very tentative. It’s not just the amount of rainfall either, it’s the timing.
How do you think your research project will help prevent famines in the future?
The important thing to understand is that [in this project] we don’t forecast rainfall, we monitor it. That’s particularly important for Africa because, [while] in the US or Europe we predominately use rain gauges – on the ground measurements – in most of Africa the rain gauge network is inadequate so satellite information becomes very important. Looking at the last thirty years of satellite data we can do some statistical analysis to say how likely it is there will be a drought in a particular part of Africa. In many parts of Africa you can expect to have a drought every 5 or 10 years.
Tell me about your plans to train African scientists to use this data.
There are a number of methods for measuring rainfall using satellite data. Although they are available on the Internet, it’s not always possible to understand how they’re being calculated or whether they’re accurate. We have a method that’s very simple and it works very well in Africa. Our philosophy is, rather than just to present scientists in Africa with a complicated method they can take or leave, to help them understand it for themselves, so they have an idea of what they’re doing and can use local knowledge to analyze thirty years of data. This will help them have a better understanding of the risk of droughts in a particular region.
And you’re making the trip yourself to do these trainings?
We’ve run two workshops in the last two years, one in Ethiopia and one in Uganda. There were also representatives from Sudan and Somalia present at these workshops. It’s particularly useful for Somalia. Obviously they aren’t very concerned about keeping good weather records; they have very little information about rainfall.
But predicting a drought is only one part of the solution isn’t it?
Since last year many organizations were predicting that there would be a drought in East Africa, largely because of the El Nino and La Nina situation. These are coming on the back of three or four years of inadequate rainfall in Somalia. So it was predicted – but nobody really reacted to it. So it’s as much political, probably even more a political problem, than a scientific one. What governments or NGOs should be working toward is making sure farmers can deal with the variability of the climate.
And how can governments or NGOs approach that task?
There is an organization called SWALIM: Somalia Water And Land Information Management based in Nairobi; their job is to go into Somalia now and then and collect what data they can – a dangerous thing to do. So if they can use data from satellite that’s a big bonus. The drought in East Africa is very localized – in some parts they’ve had good rainfall, but there’s a problem with distributing the food because of the political situation in Somalia. The problem could be solved locally.
The thing that exacerbates it is that many of the people affected are pastoralists and they travel with their livestock. Usually in a drought they would simply go to where there is rain. But because of political boundaries, governments don’t like people to go across borders, so they are being forced to stay in areas.
Why hasn’t anyone done what you’re doing before?
It’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve had to go back to the European satellite organization and get all of their data – a huge amount of data – go through it, get it into good shape, then use it to calculate the rainfall. It’s taken us two years to get this far.
Interview has been edited and condensed.