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Using data to prevent drought

August 1, 2019

Climate change will hit Africa particularly hard, fueling drought, heat and crop failures. Researchers are working to prepare the west of the continent for this scenario — with help from Germany.

An engineer inspecting a weather poll station
Image: WASCAL, J. Vajen

A few metal bars, a lot of sensors and some plastic; these are the ingredients meant to help West African researchers in their efforts to combat climate change. Since 2010, some 50 weather observation stations have been built with these items by African universities in Benin, Ghana, Togo and eight other countries — with support from Germany.

Read more: German-West African consortium combats devastating effects of climate change 

Wouldn't it make more sense to use the money on planting trees to slow down global warming? No, said German Research Minister Anja Karliczek in an interview with DW. Karliczek was in the Ghanaian capital Accra, where she pledged €25 million ($27.6 million) in additional support to regional climate change project WASCAL (West Africa Science Service Center on Climate Change and Adapted Land).

How warm was it in Dassari?

"First of all, we need a database as a foundation on which we can base our research," said Karliczek. "So far, we have had little data collection in these latitudes."

A WASCAL fully automated observatory with engineers and onlookers
This observation station in Ghana sends fully automated data Image: WASCAL, J. Vajen

The WASCAL database helps researchers find out, for instance, how high the temperature was five years ago in northwestern Benin. Near the town of Dassari at 4 p.m., it was 32 degrees, with 60 percent humidity and a light wind of three meters per second. The intensity of solar radiation, the condition of the ground and many other parameters can also be measured.

Conditions becoming more extreme

It is only with this knowledge of exactly what climatic conditions prevail, that preparations can be made for extreme weather conditions, Karliczek said. "The drier it gets here in West Africa, the more we have to use research to make new planting possible." Among other things, WASCAL is working on more precise rain forecasts for farmers or on finding out how much more water will be needed when the climate warms up by two degrees.

Minister Karliczek shakes hands and exchanges files with a Ghanaian official
Germany's Research Minister Anja Karliczek in GhanaImage: BMBF/W. Kley

With their relatively weak economies, African countries hardly contribute to climate change. However, heat, drought, floods, in short the consequences of climate change, are likely to hit the continent particularly hard. Many African countries, especially in the Sahel region, already suffer from extreme climate conditions and are poorly prepared for the consequences of climate change.

Read more: In Senegal and West Africa, villages fight climate change

Climate doctors in action

That is why the WASCAL project includes the training of young scientists. Ten doctoral programs and two master's programs have been introduced at several West African universities.

"We already have more than 250 graduates who are now experts in climate change and water supply, in adapted land use, or climate change and security," WASCAL spokesman Nii Commey told DW. These experts now work across West Africa to prepare political and economic players for climate change.

Training rather than migration

The WASCAL experts are highly regarded, says Research Minister Karliczek. "The climate experts we train can bring a wealth of knowledge especially when working in public administrations." In addition to promoting university education, Karliczek would also like to boost vocational training in the field of climate protection in West Africa in the future.

"The practical side must then come directly from industry, so that the young people are able to connect," said the minister. "These are the things we have to push for, so that development in Africa speeds up and pressure is not created for a new wave of migration." She calls for more aid for Africa overall for climate protection.

Fundamental criticism

Lisa Badum, climate policy spokeswoman for the Green Party in the German parliament, the Bundestag, can only agree with that. "It is not enough to travel through the country with a green cloak; we really need to act now," Badum told DW. "The drastic nature of the climate crisis has still not been understood by Germany's federal government."

Read more: Serengeti — Toward an uncertain future

CO2 emissions from Germany are contributing to sub-Saharan Africa's drought and slower economic growth due to climate change, said Badum. "That's why we first of all have to start cleaning up our own act and phase coal out now." With that, according to Badum, Germany would really help the world in the fight against climate change.

Protecting Africa's climate change-hit harvests

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille