Protecting Africa’s Development Gains from the Weather

July 25, 2018

Last week, the World Meteorological Organization announced Ethiopia as the location of its new Regional Office for Africa. The office will be hosted in the headquarters of Ethiopia’s National Meteorological Agency, a one billion birr complex expected to be constructed over the next few years to meet increasing demands in Africa for reliable weather and climate services.

Africa lags behind the rest of the world in both the availability and the quality of infrastructure across all sectors, including transport, water and sanitation, energy, and information and communication technology (ICT). Hydromet (weather, water, and climate) infrastructure is no exception. The good news is that compared to other infrastructure, hydromet infrastructure is much easier to pursue as a regional project since weather information can be gathered for large geographical areas and disseminated. Africa’s weak hydromet services provide an excellent opportunity for development finance institutions, states, and the private sector to collaborate in providing a public good that also serves private enterprise.

Extreme weather hits the poorest countries the hardest

Extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and heat waves vary across Africa’s regions and seasons. On the heels of severe drought that threatened livestock, harvests, and 20 million lives in East Africa last year, the region has been racked this year by three months of heavy rains. According to The East African, “The rains have caused massive flooding, triggered landslides and fault lines that have damaged or cut off key roads, leading to heavy losses that have left huge holes in the budgets.” While East Africa was experiencing drought in 2017, Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa were hit by flashfloods and mudslides.

Beyond the loss of lives and livelihoods, extreme weather has a retrogressive effect on development, destroying hard infrastructure and reversing significant investment in a context where capital investment in infrastructure is least available and needed the most. Extreme weather in fragile states aggravates their fragility because these states lack the ability to respond to these risks quickly and effectively. Thus, extreme weather events erode critical infrastructure and divert already scarce resources from investment in development to disaster response.

Africa’s underdeveloped hydromet infrastructure

About two weeks after I joined CGD, I received an officewide email informing staff of potential severe weather around the time of our commutes home and encouraging us to leave a bit early. For people in developed countries, this is pretty routine. But for people living in fragile contexts, this type of forewarning is rarer—and it is access to this type of information that is often the difference between life and death, between profitability and bankruptcy. The rise in the intensity and regularity of extreme weather events further immiserates fragile states in Africa and reverses hard-won development gains.

Hydromet infrastructure includes real-time weather information, early warning systems, and climate information systems. Radar, automated weather stations, and service delivery systems are used by governments to prepare for extreme weather events. Africa, however, lacks the infrastructure to provide accurate seasonal and longer-term climatic predictions. According to the World Bank, “Africa has the world’s least developed weather, water, and climate observation network, with less than 300 of its weather stations meeting the World Meteorological Organization’s observation standards.” As much as 54 percent of Africa’s surface weather stations and 71 percent of its upper-air weather stations do not report accurate data. Additionally, the budgets necessary to maintain key infrastructure run short every year, and it would cost more than US$1.5 billion to modernize infrastructure.

In August 2017, Sugarloaf, a mountain overlooking the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, collapsed in a mudslide. Over 500 died as buildings were swept away. There was no advance warning or mandatory evacuation. Perhaps if there had been an advanced warning system, a simple email notification like the one I received at CGD, fewer lives would have been lost.

What would change with better hydromet infrastructure?

Estimates suggest that without further action to combat climate change, average temperatures could rise by at least 4°C by the end of the twenty-first century. As temperatures rise, so too will the risk of extreme weather events. Because of the growing regularity of these events, extreme weather must now be kept in mind when building critical infrastructure. While this might increase the cost of infrastructure in the short term, building infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather is significantly cheaper in the long term than replacing an entire road or bridge because it was swept away in flood waters.

Closer to home, accurate hydromet equipment and adequate dissemination of information would help farmers avoid the losses that result when expensive fertilizer and other inputs are washed away by heavy rains. Farmers and shepherds, with proper warning, would move their herds to higher ground in anticipation of flooding. How many fishermen are lost along the African coast each year because they set out in their boats in clear weather only to encounter violent storms?

According to the World Bank, every US dollar (or equivalent) that is invested in hydromet infrastructure has the potential to generate at least three dollars’ worth of benefits. Research also shows that countries could save US$13 billion in asset losses annually by investing in hydromet, as well as saving US$22 billion in well-being and US$30 billion through a resulting increase in productivity.

For most countries in Africa, especially fragile states, hydromet services are especially important because most people work in agriculture, the sector most likely to be affected by extreme weather. In Burundi, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar, for example, more than 80 percent of the labor force works in agriculture. Across the continent, about 53 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture. Given the overwhelming dependence on the agriculture sector (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries, and aquaculture), one appreciates the scale of the debilitating effect of deficient hydromet infrastructure on livelihoods. As David Pilling, the Financial Times Africa editor, writes in his book, Growth Delusion, “In poorer countries, where the success of a harvest can be decisive and irrigation is almost non-existent, weather experts who can predict rainfall make better economic forecasters than economists.”

A Food and Agriculture Organization report on the effects of extreme weather events on agriculture in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America concludes that “given the increasing scale and intensity of threats to agriculture, it is critical to develop adequate disaster and crisis governance structures,” and that these structures “must be grounded in data and evidence detailing ways that disaster will affect farmers and food producers.” However, most fragile states lack the capacity to collect any data at all, and when they do collect data, it is not accurate.

Two ideas for filling the hydromet funding gap

As is the case with other infrastructure sectors, hydromet infrastructure is underfunded, and for all the same reasons. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank, through its Hydromet Services and Early Warning program, is working with governments to upgrade infrastructure and provide training for partner countries. But the program still relies predominantly on bilateral and multilateral aid. And there are still huge gaps in hydromet infrastructure in Africa.

With limited government budgets and inadequate development financing, states have to be creative. Two possible sources of financing for hydromet investments come to mind, both of which stand to benefit from improved meteorological forecasting: the aviation sector and international companies that source agricultural products like cocoa from Africa.

Aviation requires accurate weather information and is expected to grow significantly as a sector in Africa. As African states struggle with domestic resource mobilization to finance their development, every institution that charges and collects fees on behalf of these states must be assessed for contribution. In view of this, flight information regions (FIRs) across Africa provide an opportunity. A FIR is a region of airspace with specific boundaries in which flight information and alerting services are provided to aircraft. For example, when an aircraft takes off from Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone to travel to Ghana, it will receive these services from the Roberts FIR in Monrovia. When the aircraft crosses into airspace over Cote d’Ivoire, Roberts FIR will hand over to Dakar FIR, and so forth.

Because FIRs charge clients for the service they provide, aviation growth means an increase in FIR revenue. FIRs collect fees on behalf of their member states but are autonomous and make no direct contribution to national budgets (at least that is the case with the Roberts FIR). FIRs will naturally argue that they have needs that exceed any increase in revenue. That concern will be taken under advisement. A 2014 study estimates that the aviation sector in Africa could add up to $1.3 billion in economic output, generate over 150,000 new jobs, and reduce fares by up to 35 percent. FIRs may not directly contribute to the national budget of member states, but they do make money and have in the past made token contributions to meteorological stations in member states. As the aviation sector growths and FIRs’ revenue grows, they can, and must do more.

For example, the Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA), an air traffic control agency that covers six FIRs, signed an agreement with Aireon this year to provide improved space-based air traffic surveillance to high-traffic corridors in Western and Central Africa. This will allow ASECNA to monitor aircraft even in remote places. ASECNA and other FIRs should join the World Bank, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and other partners to invest in quality hydromet infrastructure and training to improve outcomes for farmers and enable African countries to prepare for the increase in extreme weather events.

Another source of contribution to improved hydromet infrastructure should be international companies sourcing agricultural products—like cocoa—from Africa. About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa and is produced by smallholder farmers. As the International Cocoa Initiative notes, “The seasonality of cocoa farming means that incomes are not consistent year-round and cocoa farming families experience heightened economic vulnerability and deepened poverty during off-seasons.” Most farmers are not able to save money, and many lack economic resilience strategies such as insurance or alternative income sources. The living conditions of these farmers has been a concern and the big players in the industry have established programs to improve livelihoods, including the Cargill Cocoa Promise, Mondelēz Cocoa Life, and the Livelihood Fund for Family Farming. Mars and Danone announced in 2015 a 120 million euro investment in the livelihoods of cocoa farmers.

The big players in the cocoa industry should also consider supporting efforts to improve hydromet services in Africa. Providing quality hydromet services to local farmers will improve both the cocoa production and the perennials they grow to cope with the lean months. With accurate weather services, farmers can better prepare for extreme weather events, enabling them to make more informed decisions and increase output. Naturally, these services will not exclusively benefit cocoa farmers: they will benefit all farmers and contribute to better farm planning, reduce preventable loss, and drive down the cost of food. Companies such as Mars and Nestlé would also benefit from their investment in hydromet services because better information will lead to better crop yields and higher profit margins.

The World Bank, other multilateral development banks, and development finance institutions already require civil works projects they fund to account for social and environmental impacts. They must now go one step further and begin integrating weather and climate resilience into infrastructure rather than watching as millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure is washed away by rains. 

While roads, energy, ICT, and water and sanitation infrastructure deficits garner more attention, hydromet infrastructure must not be ignored or forgotten.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.