Rainwatch keeps eye on rainfall for West African farmers

NOAA-funded program develops solution to address need

May 12, 2011

Low river levels in Africa.

The Kennedy Bridge over the Niger River shown in May 2003 after the area's driest year since 1987.

High resolution (Credit: With permission from Niger Basin Authority.)

More than anywhere on the planet, rain can mean the difference between life and death for those living in Niger, in West Africa. After a severe drought in 2009 caused many to face acute hunger, in 2010 the area experienced its wettest year since 1964. NOAA-funded researchers hope a new climate information system they developed will help West African farmers help themselves.

Rainwatch is a prototype geographic information system (GIS) that monitors monsoon rainfall and tracks season rainfall attributes. This information is crucial because sub-Saharan Africa depends more strongly and directly on rainfall than any other region on Earth, yet the area has the fewest rainfall monitoring stations and significant delays that occur between data collection and its availability for users.

Rainwatch automates and streamlines key aspects of rainfall data management, processing and visualization. A major appeal is its simplicity – all interactive interfaces, symbols and names used are unpretentious and self explanatory. In addition, the system can be used by Africans without any outside assistance such as satellite information.

The need for a better system was the motivation for Rainwatch. The system was conceived and developed under the leadership of climate researchers Aondover Tarhule, chairman of the University of Oklahoma (OU) Department of Geography, and Peter J. Lamb, director of the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS) at OU. They co-authored a paper outlining the program with former OU graduate student Zakari Saley-Bana published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Both Tarhule and Saley-Bana are from West Africa.

High river levels in Africa.

The Kennedy Bridge over the Niger River in January 2011 after the area's wettest year since 1964.

High resolution (Credit: With permission from Issa Lélé.)

The program was made possible because of long-term interactions funded primarily by the NOAA National Weather Service International Activities Office Voluntary Cooperation Program (VCP). The VCP is a World Meteorological Organization Program funded by donor country contributions to support primarily national meteorological and hydrological services in lesser developed countries.

“During the past decade, NOAA funded about $75,000 and additional support came from the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development and CIMMS which allowed us to build relationships, learn of the need, and develop a solution,” Lamb said.

In a successful 2009 demonstration involving seven rain gauge stations in Niger, Rainwatch was shown to directly address the area’s need for better rainfall data acquisition, management, representation and rapid dissemination. The program continued in 2010, when it dramatically showed the return of abundant rainfall. It is expected to expand beyond Niger this year.

The key to any climate monitoring system is to get people to use it, Lamb said. Because Rainwatch is simple to operate and more streamlined in design and scope than existing systems, the researchers hope the program will be adopted and used more widely throughout West Africa where other more complicated rainfall data dissemination systems have had limited success.

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