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Building resilience across East Africa through the production and communication of seasonal forecasts

By Collison Lore (ICPAC) & Stefan Lines (Met Office)

The importance of seasonal forecasting

Due to a combination of climatic extremes and vulnerable communities, East Africa is the focus of much research, engagement and action. The WMO Regional Climate Centre, the Intergovernmental Authority of Development’s (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC), is the focal point for regional-level weather to climate coordination across the Greater Horn of Africa (GHA).

Amongst other mandated responsibilities, ICPAC works with a variety of national, regional and international partners, including National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHS) and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), to provide people across the area with climate information for decision making.

Long-term climate information can provide opportunities for adaptation against the impacts of long-term anthropogenic trends in temperature and rainfall, but many of the region’s economies are dependent on seasonal changes, as these underpin the ability for sectors such as agriculture, pastoralism and energy production to be resilient against variability in rainfall that occurs inter-annually.

East Africa countries (shaded green) covered by ICPAC. Note, not all countries are IGAD member states, but still benefit from the seasonal forecast. Figure: Creative Commons 

To make the situation more complicated for weather and climate prediction, the climatic conditions in East Africa are varied, ranging from hot, dry desert regions, to cooler, wetter highland regions, and large variability in seasonal rainfall is experienced. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economies of the population in the region, a significant majority of which is food insecure.

Over 95% of the region’s food production is thus rainfed, yet only a minuscule percentage of public agricultural water investments support rainfed agriculture. Furthermore, access to regular and fairly accurate weather forecasts is limited.

This then feeds into the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty that are major issues for the region.East Africa is currently facing the prospect of a fifth consecutive ‘failed’ rainy season – that is, the fifth back-to-back Short and Long-Rains (March, April, May & October, November, December) which produces less than normal or ‘average’ rainfall, where the average is determined from an assessment of the climate over the last thirty years.

Such a significant lack of rainfall is driving a vast drought over large parts of the region, which is in turn cascading to increased food insecurity and hence famine for millions. The latter has been compounded by external socio-political and economic factors, such as grain import availability and cost due to recent geopolitical instability.

Is the situation in East Africa changing?

Weather and climate stakeholders are well aware of the challenges facing the region and have teamed up to seek viable home-grown solutions. ICPAC is a Climate Centre accredited by the World Meteorological Organization that provides climate services to 11 East African countries. ICPAC services aim to create resilience in a region deeply affected by climate change and extreme weather, and has worked closely with NMHSs in the region, UN agencies, regional NGOs and other key regional institutions.

One crucial partner working with ICPAC is the Met Office, the UK’s national meteorological service, which provides critical weather services and world-leading climate science to help the public, government, businesses, and emergency responders stay safe and thrive.

ICPAC and the Met Office have worked together closely on projects and programmes such as Weather and Climate Information Services (WISER), Horizon 2020 CONFER and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) African SWIFT, assessing a wide range of timescales (weather, sub-seasonal, seasonal and long-term climate change). Combined they have increased capacity in the region to understand, produce and communicate weather and climate information that will support decision making to benefit lives and livelihoods.

Seasonal forecasting: building capacity

ICPAC, Met Office and NMHSs across East Africa convene for the ‘PreCOF’ workshop in August 2022, producing the October to December (short-rains) forecast for the GHACOF. Image: ICPAC

A long-standing activity between ICPAC and the Met Office has been to work together to enhance capacity to produce and communicate seasonal forecast information. Through projects such as WISER and CONFER, the two institutions have worked together closely to provide training and ongoing support to the region’s NMHSs.

Since 2019, when ICPAC transitioned from a subjective, consensus-based approach to an objective forecasting method for its Greater Horn of Africa (GHA) seasonal outlook, a comprehensive framework for enhancing capacity building within the sphere of seasonal information has been in action.

Typically, this starts with a two to three week training workshop which covers a wide range of topics including drivers of seasonal variability, ensemble systems, verification, use of advanced software, and a detailed overview and practical use of ICPAC’s objective forecasting procedure.

Each NMHS provides a representative forecaster who then takes part in three of the Climate Outlook Forum (COF) forecast production workshops, termed PreCOF. PreCOFs immediately precede the tri-annual GHACOFs which provide seasonal outlooks for the Long-Rains , Short-Rains  and June, July, August, September. During the PreCOF workshop, participants co-produce the forecast alongside ICPAC and the Met Office, developing various products such as tercile maps (probabilities of above/below normal conditions), onset likelihood, as well as verification of the previous season.

Supporting holistic training in weather and climate communication

The training has evolved from a capacity building for the media approach to general stakeholder and media training. The shift in emphasis from a monolithic approach of capacity building of the media is in realisation that the media works in tandem with a wide range of partners especially in the context of weather and climate.

During the month of June, as part of the CONFER project, ICPAC undertook capacity enhancement activities involving four countries in the East Africa region. These countries included Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. More countries are lined up for future engagements.

The actors whose capacity is being built include the media, specifically community radio targeting vulnerable communities, forecasters, meteorological agency communicators, policy makers in Disaster Risk Reduction, and Agriculture and Food Security. The capacity building also involved active physical visits to meteorological offices in the host countries to understand both challenges and innovation and lessons learned overtime on the provision of seasonal forecast information. 

Presenting the October, November & December 2022 forecast in Swahili during the 62  GHACOF in Mombasa, Kenya. The use of local languages in communicating the forecast ensures a wider audience having access consequently leading to enhanced uptake and application. Image: ICPAC

Leveraging data-driven observations

ICPAC, through CONFER specifically and the Met Office generally, are adopting a real-time, data-centric approach to improve the accuracy of weather forecasting. Backed by high-performance computing solutions (with much of the forecast processing being done on the WISER-funded ICPAC cluster), ICPAC collects, analyses, and acts on a surge of geospatial data.

Consequently, ICPAC scientists utilise prognostic analytics to reveal patterns in historical data combined with current observations in order to derive real-time insights for more accurate and informed forecasts.

Increased uptake and application of seasonal forecasts

Stakeholders at the sub-national level in Kenya discussing the forecast, the quality and accuracy of the forecast has continued to improve. As a result of ICPAC, the Met Office and other NHMS partners working together. Image: ICPAC

In supporting the ICPAC team during the preCOF activities, GHACOF and beyond, the Met Office indirectly ensures increased uptake and application of seasonal forecasts.  Seasonal forecasts can play a vital role in building the resilience of vulnerable populations against an increasingly variable and extreme climate, in the Eastern Africa region.

The partnership between ICPAC and the Met Office therefore aims to ensure seasonal forecasts become more usable and impact-relevant. More information about the Met Office’s role at GHACOF can be found in the recent post from Tammy Janes and Scott Burgan.

This is why ICPAC has gone a step further to foster collaboration with users through an effective two-way communication from both parties. Today, thanks to the partnership with ICPAC, users of weather and climate information along the entire information value chain are increasingly using seasonal forecasts for decision making.