In Liberia, farmers are experiencing extreme weather like never before. With heavy rain and strong winds, eroding coasts and degraded soils, Liberia’s most-vulnerable communities face ever-increasing risks from climate change.
For centuries, Liberians have relied on traditional knowledge for farming. They knew it would be wet in the last half of the year, dry in the first.
But a changing climate means extreme weather is making it harder to guess what lies ahead, how seasonal rainfall patterns might change, and how these winds of change might threaten to disrupt the delicate peace in this country where eight out of 10 people live on less than $1.25 a day, farmers largely rely on rainfed agriculture to feed their families, and coastal fisheries are threatened by rising sea levels and coastal flooding.'
With all these changes, reliable weather forecasts, early warnings and consistent climate information can mean the difference between life and death, profitable harvests or destroyed crops, sustainable economic and social development, or continued cycles of poverty and conflict.
With the numerous challenges and resource constraints that Liberia faces, traditional hydrometeorological systems like those deployed in developed countries are too expensive, too hard to service, and too difficult to maintain.
Rather than invest in this type of system, the Government of Liberia decided to take a bold step to leapfrog technologies by leveraging easy-to-deploy automatic weather stations, partnerships with telecommunications companies, and innovative public-private partnerships with climate service providers.
Working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on a project to “Strengthen climate information services to enhance resilient development,” the Government of Liberia has deployed 11 automatic weather stations (AWS), 6 agrometeorology stations, a lightning detection system, hydrological software that will provide for integrated water resource management, and a hydrological early warning system that has been installed and will begin issuing alerts in 2018. The project was supported through a UNDP programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA) and funded through the Global Environment Facility Least Developed Countries Fund (GEF-LDCF).
The project has also set up a public information website providing hourly and 10-day forecasts for all the cities of Liberia.
Given that at the start of the project, Liberia had limited weather monitoring capabilities and no early warning systems, this is a significant achievement in a nation working hard to redefine itself in the 21st Century.
The premise behind Liberia’s efforts to radically enhance its climate monitoring and reporting services, is simple, bold and innovative. Looking beyond typical weather monitoring systems, the government has entered into unique public-private partnerships with the US-based climate services provider Earth Networks and national mobile provider Orange Telecommunication Company to build and service its lightning detection system.
This system provides a real-time cloud-based platform to capture, analyze and distribute weather information gathered through the AWS – an inexpensive and easy-to-deploy technology that captures data about everything from lightning, rainfall, wind direction and speed, to temperature and humidity.
Ensuring consistent power, security and maintenance for remote weather stations is a challenge across Africa. By working with Orange Telecommunications to site AWS, the project has taken important first steps in ensuring the long-term sustainability of national investments in climate services and early warnings.
Weather knows no borders. And storms in neighboring countries can cause floods in Liberia – or even push eco-immigrants to cross the border. To support the beginnings of a regional weather monitoring system, the Earth Networks system has been deployed across Côte D’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, providing a valuable cross-border net of reliable and actionable climate information.
Farmers from the Tchien District near the border with Côte Di’Ivoire are feeling the impacts of climate change.
Victoria Banks, 53, is the chief of her zone in the district capital of Zwedru. Her plot of land sits in a low-lying area that floods every year. With each passing season, the floods have become more and more unpredictable, putting her family’s livelihood at risk.
“We usually know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to wait,” Victoria said. “Before we could harvest right before the floods, but now the floods can come at any time.”
This unpredictability (and lack of reliable short- and medium-term forecasts) destroys crops, diminishes yields, damages infrastructure, and often-times means farmers need to replant, and start all over again.
Much of the rural areas in Liberia are criss-crossed with rivers and as heavy rains fall, people die in the swollen, fast-moving waters every year. According to Project Coordinator Kumeh Assaf, farmers are especially vulnerable to flooding, which has become a major obstacle in national efforts to reduce poverty and ensure food security.
“With improved forecasts, farmers can plan for heavy or extended rains, and can make informed decisions on when to plant, fertilize, harvest, and take their products to market,” said Assaf.
Climate information doesn’t just protect inland farmers. On the coasts, fishermen are using information generated from local automatic weather stations to know when big storms are brewing, so they can shore up their dugout canoes and avoid losing their lives in big swells.
Climate information has multiple applications beyond saving lives from fast-acting storms or supporting farmers in building more climate-resilient livelihoods.
With improved climate records, decision makers in the Capital of Monrovia can leverage improved information to improve National Adaptation Plans, and inform evidence-based decisions on everything from budgets and energy, to policy, market development and poverty reduction initiatives.
This information also provides the backbone to mainstream and accelerate ongoing climate resilience efforts like the UNDP-supported Coastal Defense Project, and can be used to improve the global climate record through platforms like the World Meteorological Organization Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOs).
Improving capacity on the national level to gather, analyse and share this data will be key. Since the project’s inception, 27 staff members across different sectoral agencies were trained in meteorology, with 65 trained in disaster management. There are plans for a hydrology training this year.
With this improved capacity, the Government of Liberia plans to use its new weather monitoring capabilities to begin issuing weather alerts and creating tailored packages that farmers can use to improve their livelihoods in 2018.
In a nation that’s been wracked by conflict, disease outbreaks, and hard-to-break poverty traps, the creation of these new public goods is a bold first step toward reaching the country’s commitments to the Paris Agreement and 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
This story was originally published by UNDP.
FOOTNOTES: Story by Greg Benchwick and Lesley Wright. Photos by UNDP Liberia and Joost Hoedjes