Rainwatch-AfClix regional workshop Senegal, July 2016, by Caroline Dunning

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Rainwatch-AfClix hosted a regional workshop with ANACIM in Dakar, Senegal at the end of July. The aim of the workshop was to bring together users and producers of climate services to discuss the use of rainfall data in the Sahel, and how this data can be disseminated in a usable and actionable format. How the Rainwatch system can be used as part of this process, and possible future developments were key areas for discussion.

The first day constituted a technical training event, with representatives from across West Africa and the Sahel present. The discussion on climate services was initiated by Mariane Diop-Kane from ANACIM. Senegal has undergone changes in climate over the past 50 years, with changes in temperature and declining rainfall leading to a reduction in the length of the growing season. Future declines in rainfall, increases in temperature and increasing frequency of extreme events projected by climate change simulations will have sizable implications for agriculture and society. In order to adapt to such changes, improvements in infrastructure and services are required that will enable better decisions and better planning for climate change. Good monitoring systems, integrating real time data to create a reliable dataset will form a key part of this. A key challenge highlighted was the need to disseminate this data via appropriate and user-relevant products; where Rainwatch can play an important role.

A key part of both the technical training event and the partner consultation workshop on the following day was the presentation of the Rainwatch platform, its history, current functionality and visions for the future of Rainwatch. Rainwatch is a grass-roots project that, in the words of Pete Lamb, was designed to ‘help Africa help itself’. It allows National Hydro-Meteorological Services (NHMS) to upload daily rainfall measurements and presents these in practical and accessible format for a range of users, including those with little formal education. The role of forecasting and its importance was a much discussed theme throughout both days of the workshop, but it was frequently noted that without an understanding of how climate data works, and monitoring data to assess the forecast, interpreting forecasts with all their associated uncertainty presents a significant challenge. Rainwatch enables a wide range of users to access monitoring data, in an actionable format, with boxplots, percentile plots and station comparisons, all of which allow users to compare current rainfall with memorable life experiences, as this was deemed to be the best format, with graphics being updated to fully meet the needs of users. A fantastic presentation, with an interactive demo, and concerns about data security addressed led to several countries committing to join Rainwatch, and those that were already involved promising to keep their data up to date; a thoroughly exciting result for the middle of the first day!

As a PhD student not solely focused on West African climate, and with limited knowledge of climate policy, the workshop taught me a lot about the various projects and initiatives surrounding this area. One of these was the First Forecasters Handbook for West Africa, a collaborative effort from a range of institutions and individuals to produce a reference book for forecasting in West Africa. Another, presented at the beginning of the Partner Consultation Workshop, was the Global Framework for Climate Services. The presentation by Dr Arame Tall described the programme, designed to guide the development of climate services for supporting decision making in climate sectors, including food security, health, energy, disaster risk reduction and water management. The importance of a functional chain from national services to community level users seems logical, but in many places the gaps in this system mean that climate information is not successfully translated into climate services. This firmly planted strong motivation for communication and collaboration between NHMS and users; with participants keen to engage in the subsequent participatory group sessions.

These constituted a series of discussion topics, and a serious game, where the problems of delivering appropriate aid to vulnerable communities were highlighted, with the ‘rainmakers’ delivering serious problems for certain participants, and the ‘aid agency’ team struggling to determine the relevant course of action, and struggling even more with delivering ‘parcels of aid’ using a drainpipe! The discussion in smaller groups looked at the desirable characteristics of an early warning system, who would use it, what needs would it meet, what specific information should be included, and what is the current use of climate data? Conversation flowed, with much laughter emanating from some groups.

My PhD research looks at the onset of the wet season, and how this can be defined. Prior to the Rainwatch workshop I had been working on a way of determining whether or not the season had started on a real-time basis. Often this requires knowledge of the rainfall for the month after the onset to check there are no prolonged dry spells. Using a probabilistic approach and historical rainfall data we can determine if the wet season has started closer to the actual onset date. I presented these results on both days of the workshop, with much interest shown, leading to possible future inclusion in the Rainwatch platform. In addition, tools looking at the yield, using results from crop models will also be included.

For participants from meteorological services, climate service users and the Rainwatch-AfClix team from the Universities of Reading and Oklahoma the workshop provided a fantastic opportunity to understand and exchange opinions on the weather and climate information priorities for NHMS and user communities, and how the Rainwatch platform can be used to meet these needs. The substantial role that Rainwatch can play was clear, with countries committing and recommitting to get onboard. For me, it was my first experience seeing how research and climate information can be adapted for actionable and practical purposes, and the importance of this for future adaptation, and was a thoroughly enlightening and thought-provoking experience.

Caroline Dunning

11 August 2016