Software Platform Gets The Jump On Droughts

Published on 25 October 2010

Africa RiskView was developed with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Copyright: WFP/Rome

An innovative new software application that keeps real-time tabs on rainfall and its impact on local farmers could help WFP anticipate droughts in Africa before they’re felt. The first platform of its kind, Africa RiskView could also gauge the effects of climate change over the long term.

ROME—Imagine that it’s the end of a growing season in East Africa and the harvests have been poor. The rains this year were too little and too late and now millions of people stand to go hungry. Imagine that despite this scenario, the alarm bells of an impending food crisis have been silent, and there have been no urgent appeals to fund a hunger relief operation.

In an ideal world, none of this would matter, because adequate food stocks would have already been prepositioned and the funds necessary to distribute them would have already been received.

This ideal situation is the ultimate goal of Africa RiskView, an ambitious new software platform that draws on surveys and climate and crop-related information to measure the effects of drought before they're felt.

“The aim of Africa RiskView is to combine weather and crop related data with what we already know about local populations to estimate how many people will be affected by a disaster and how much it will cost to help them,” said Joanna Syroka, technical director of the WFP team developing the software.

How it works

According to Syroka, the programme takes satellite-based rainfall data for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa and measures it against the Water Requirement Satisfaction Index (WRSI), a model developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to determine if a given piece of farmland has received enough rainwater to support its staple crops.

The result yields a colour-coded map with dark green patches over the areas which have received adequate rainfall and lighter yellow patches over the areas that haven’t.

Tracing her finger over a yellow swathe of map over East Africa, Syroka says: “you can see that these areas here have experienced some kind of water stress. There either hasn’t been enough rain, or it’s fallen too late and too unevenly for good crop growth.”

The programme then factors in the number of people in the area who depend on rain-fed agriculture and their ability to weather a bad harvest to predict how hard a dry spell is likely to hit them.

Based on that, it provides a range of estimates for how much the responses to varying end-of-season scenarios will cost, which narrow as the season progresses and the outcome of the harvest—whether good or bad—becomes increasingly clear.

Planning ahead

“When the model becomes available WFP will be able to share this information with governments and donors to ensure that the necessary resources, staffing and logistical arrangements are in place,” said Syroka.

But the utility of Africa RiskView doesn’t stop with the season in progress. “Because we use rainfall and other weather variables as the driving factors in the model, we can also use it to see how various climate change scenarios will play out in sub-Saharan Africa in ten or even fifty years from now,” she added.

Africa RiskView is still undergoing testing, but the results so far are promising. Fed historical data from droughts over the past decade, the beta version gives estimates for the number of people affected that correlate by almost 90 percent to the number of people who actually required assistance.

Africa RiskView’s user-friendly interface and rendering over Google Maps means you don’t have to be a computer or a climate expert to use it, though there are a number of advanced functions that will require some expertise.

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about the author

Justin Smith

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Justin Smith worked as a journalist before joining WFP in 2010. He tweets at @justin_eugene