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Preventing heat wave tragedies in Africa

By Lucie Morangi | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2015-07-26 15:54

Extreme weather can damage a country's farming industry as well as cause food shortages

As heat waves sweep across Asia-Pacific, leaving casualties in their wake, many people in East Africa are enduring extremely cold weather in their part of the world.

According to early forecasts by the Kenya Meteorological Department, temperatures were to hit an average low of 11 to 13 C in June, July and August, and a high of 20 to 23 C, although at times that may drop to 15 C.

 Preventing heat wave tragedies in Africa

A Zimbabwean man harvests maize from a field in suburb of Harare. Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters

This may seem moderate, but to the local populace it is aptly referred to as winter.

The region normally experiences moderately high temperatures reaching 37 C, especially in northern areas. According to the weather office's alert, the potential effects from the cold include an upsurge in respiratory cases, such as asthma and pneumonia and the common cold.

Although the weather in East Africa is regarded as good year-round, scientist Zachary Atheru warns that this may not be the case for much longer.

"Recent research indicates that all model predictions point to a warmer future than what we have currently," says Atheru, a program manager in climate diagnostics and prediction for Kenya's IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre. "An increase in the frequency of intensely hot days is most likely, particularly under the no-mitigation scenario of global warming. This means that Africa needs to prepare for heat waves."

Although he is unable to predict when this will occur, he says it will depend on the level of global warming and the extent of desertification throughout the continent.

"The timing, intensity and frequency of heat waves can only be explained through research," he adds. "Heat wave duration and the number of hot days are strictly correlated and show that the temperature rise could generate not only an increase in the frequency of heat waves, but also a longer than average duration, which would strongly test the resilience of the population."

ICPAC was jointly established in 1989 by 24 countries in eastern and southern Africa in response to the devastating number of weather-related disasters. The agency's objective is to provide early-warning climate information and support sector applications aimed at mitigating the impact of climate variability.

The Horn of Africa is prone to extreme climate events such as floods and droughts. According to Kenya's National Drought Management Authority, an agency established to manage responses to weather calamities, these episodes have become frequent, longer and more intense.

In 2011, Kenya and Somalia experienced the worst drought in Africa in almost 20 years. It came two years after another dry spell and eroded the little resilience that had been built in that time by vulnerable communities. In 1997 and 1998, the region also faced the worst El Nino, with continuous heavy downpours.

The erratic weather patterns saw East African countries experience heavy losses, with farmlands destroyed and the nation's food security badly affected. Infrastructure was washed away and many people were left homeless and hungry.

In the event that the region experiences a heat wave, a similar catastrophe may be witnessed. "The impact of a heat wave on society is determined by temporal duration, in addition to frequency," Atheru says. "Depending on the intensity, there is a risk of mortality, as well as psychological and social effects, wild fires and crop failure."

To mitigate the damage done by extreme weather, African governments have been urged to develop "safety nets" to protect vulnerable people from starvation. Ethiopia has been successful on this front, as it now assists some 8 million people at risk of chronic food shortages through work programs. Many people here can also get access to microloans to support income-generating activities.

Kenya, on the other hand, has unveiled plans to establish a National Disaster Contingency Fund, which would allow humanitarian partners to pool resources to promote rapid responses to disasters. However, although proposed about three years ago, the fund is yet to be launched.

Another strategy is to release frequent weather data to the public to prepare them for changing conditions. This early-warning awareness campaign is aimed at preventing situations from progressing into disasters.

However, Atheru says governments must commit to global warming mitigation and design strategies such as shelters to accommodate people affected by extreme weather, particularly the elderly. He also points out that research needs to be stepped up to understand what different regions of Africa can expect in the future, and advises that authorities "need to reserve resources in case we need to rescue and support communities".

Heat waves in countries such as China may potentially lead to foreign aid cuts, as governments divert resources to recovery efforts within their own borders, he warns.

"On the flipside, we can benefit from tourists running away from the severe high temperatures, as we're perceived to have a good climate," he adds. "However, whatever happens in the world is a lesson for us. The time is now. We need to take action."

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