‘Better African heatwave data could save lives, shield economies’

KIM HARRISBERG

HEATWAVES over the last century in sub-Saharan Africa have not been properly recorded, undermining early warning systems to save lives and prevent economic losses caused by soaring temperatures, a University of Oxford report said on Monday.

Researchers found the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), the world’s biggest database of extreme weather events, includes data on just two African heatwaves since 1900, compared with dozens in recent decades in other global regions.

A lack of expertise and poor governance on the issue, along with limited observational networks contributed to the shortfall, they said.

“Both real-world observations and climate modelling show sub-Saharan Africa as a hotspot for heatwave activity… But these heatwaves are not being recorded,” said Luke Harrington, a senior researcher at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and one of the study’s authors.

“It’s as if they haven’t happened, but we know they have,” he said.

The report found that in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa’s two reports in the EM-DAT, 83 European heatwaves in the last 40 years were documented.

Environmental campaigners warned that the lack of data on extreme heat events meant African experiences of climate change were being excluded from the global debate.

“People in Africa are certainly aware of the growing number of heatwaves… but if they are not recorded by scientists it will be harder for African voices to be heard,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi-based climate think-tank Power Shift Africa.

More than half a billion people are likely to be hit by heat stress above safe levels by 2100 if global average temperatures continue to rise, according to a study published in March in the Environmental Research Letters journal.

The research found some 275 million people suffered at least one day of dangerous heat stress annually at present.

Extreme heat can lead to kidney disorders and psychiatric illness, severe dehydration and can aggravate cardiac conditions, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Another of the Oxford report’s authors, Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute, said lives could be saved relatively easily if warning systems worked well.

“Early warnings make people aware to drink water regularly and (governments can) also make drinking water freely available and open public buildings that are cool,” Otto told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

She said collaboration between health experts, disaster researchers and meteorologists could help fill the data gaps, making extreme weather events predictable and avoiding unnecessary loss of life.

Adow, who was not involved in the Oxford study, said accurate data would also spur climate action by African governments and international leaders.

“Africa is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. But if we don’t fully know how much the canary is suffering, it’s not good for the canary or for the rest of the world either,” he said. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.