Countries, like people, rely on stories of the past to guide them in the present and help them prepare for the unknown. The genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda ripped out many pages of stories, climate among them. It took half a generation for the meteorological observing system to recover to pre-1994 levels, leaving a costly gap in Rwanda’s climate history.
Historical climate records matter
In order to manage climate risks, we must understand what they are and be able to anticipate them. Climate information—and its use for farming decision-making, index-based agricultural insurance, government agricultural planning, and food security management—can benefit smallholder farmers. But these interventions depend on access to high-quality, long-term local meteorological records and are difficult to implement where gaps exist in those records.
Loss of Rwanda’s meteorological observing system
In addition to the data challenges that many developing countries share, Rwanda suffered a near-complete loss of its meteorological observing system in the decade following the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.
After the war and genocide against the Tutsi ended in 1994, Didace Musoni was charged with resurrecting Rwanda's meteorological agency (Meteo Rwanda). He took a series of trips through the countryside to check on the stations and was disheartened by what he saw. “Many of these stations had been abandoned,” he says. “The fencing would be torn. Instruments were destroyed.” Many of the volunteers who had manned the stations had been murdered in the genocide. Most of the rest had fled.
As the nation rebuilt, Meteo Rwanda was eventually able to rebuild its observing network to exceed the level before 1994. However, for nearly fifteen years following the genocide against the Tutsi, Rwanda has almost no record of what its weather was like. “That period was totally lost,” says Didace Musoni, a top official at Rwanda's meteorological agency, “It is data that will never, never, never be recovered.”
Rebuilding Rwanda’s climate history
Tufa Dinku from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), is one of several partners in the Rwanda Climate Services for Agriculture project funded by USAID . He also leads the ENACTS initiative, which works with National Meteorological Services to improve the quality, accessibility, and usefulness of the climate information they provide. Because long-term historical records are the foundation for useful climate services, Tufa developed methods to fill data gaps by merging quality-controlled observations from meteorological stations with proxy data from satellites or climate model reanalysis. The resulting high-resolution gridded data, going back more than three decades, serves as a foundation for a suite of online climate information tools and products.
When Tufa first started working with Meteo Rwanda, he found the decade-long data gap daunting. “My first reaction was, 'It cannot be this bad.' So I went back to the data and then I said, 'Wow. This is true. It's really this bad.'” Tufa was determined to find a solution, and extended the data merging technique to successfully fill the long gap in Rwanda’s climate history.
From a worse-case scenario to a leader in climate services
With the support of the Rwanda Climate Services for Agriculture project funded by USAID , Meteo Rwanda has used the resulting gridded historical data to develop one of the most advanced suites of online climate information products available for agricultural decision-makers in Africa. Their interactive “Maproom” portal provides analyses such as seasonal cycles, rainy day frequency, mean rainfall intensity, wet and dry spell frequency, and timing of the onset and end of the rainfed growing season. Users can view the information as maps, or more detailed graphs at any selected 4-km grid location.
Rwanda is also the first country in Africa to introduce an innovative approach to presenting seasonal forecasts that overcomes the major obstacles to using the conventional forecast format for local agricultural decision-making. Users can access maps of forecast probabilities of exceeding a selected rainfall amount or climatological percentile. Those interested in the local forecast can access the full forecast probability distribution, along with the corresponding historical seasonal climate distribution, for their selected location.
Agricultural extension personnel have been trained to bring many of these graphical information products to farmers through a participatory communication and planning process.
Despite the loss of more than a decade of its climate history, Rwanda is emerging as a leader in agricultural climate services across Africa. In fact, it was recently recognized with the firs Climate Smart Agriculture Project of the Year Award, at the inaugural Africa Climate Smart Agriculture Summit in 2018.
James Hansen is a Senior Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University. His research focuses on climate risk management for agriculture. Contact: [email protected]
Francesco Fiondella, Director of Communication for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), manages IRI’s communications team and oversees the institute’s strategic communications and media relations. Contact: [email protected]
Gloriose Nsengiyumva is Coordinator for Outcome 1: Climate Services for Farmers, for the Rwanda Climate Services for Agriculture project, based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Contact: [email protected]
Jacquelyn Turner is a visual storyteller specialist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI); and Communications Officer for the CGIAR research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAF). Contact: [email protected]
Desire Kagabo is a Scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); and Coordinator of the Rwanda Climate Services for Agriculture project. His research focuses on climate services and farming systems. Contact: [email protected]