Drought warning system being developed in South Africa

The Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute is developing a new drought warning system for parts of South Africa. The recently started project is focusing on producing forecasts and recommendations so as to better manage times of strain. The work is being done in close co-operation with local players.

Like many other countries, South Africa is periodically severely affected by drought, but also by torrential rain. Future scenarios indicate that the problems are likely to increase with climate change. A new project aims to build up a system that provides a warning of droughts, up to six months in advance.

“The aim is to provide early warnings that are useful to smallholders and water distributors, for example. This will help them better adapt their operations and mitigate the effects of the drought,” says Lotta Andersson, a hydrology scientist at SMHI. She is also linked to the National Knowledge Centre for Climate Change Adaptation at SMHI and the Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research.

Seasonal forecasts

The new warning system is fundamentally based on meteorological seasonal forecasts extending six months into the future, and hydrological models that can project water availability and water flows.

To increase the reliability of the forecasts, wireless sensor networks are also being installed to measure soil moisture. The sensors are read using mobile phones by residents of local villages, after which the information is sent to the projection models.

“The most pivotal aspect for success is linked to how the information in the warnings is formulated and what recommendations are given. Many smallholders work with very narrow margins, and cannot take excessive risks should the forecasts not be accurate.”

Another important part of the project is knowledge transfer to the local co-ordinators, so that all parts of the warning chain run smoothly even after the project has come to an end.

“This is a first step in reducing vulnerability with the climate variations that exists today. The decision to work with seasonal forecasts is based on wishes from local players in a previous project that focused on adaptation to climate change. In that project, it became clear that local climate adaptation in developing countries must begin by reducing vulnerability for the climate variations that already exist,” Andersson explains.

Local co-ordinators

The project is being run within an association between SMHI and the Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research (CSPR) and the Department of Electrical Engineering at Linköping University, as commissioned by Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

The local co-ordinators are South Africa’s Department of Agriculture regional offices in the province of Limpopo. The project also builds on collaboration with several universities in South Africa and Mozambique. The project will run for three years.

The Sida project name is Local-scale Early Warning for Drought – can they increase community resilience, abbreviated to Drought Early Warning Detection (DEWD).