Massaging global models to predict local climate impact

Strapped by a lack of knowledge generation in Africa, researchers are using global paradigms from the north to study climate and other environmental change. “We take northern models and massage them – often beat them – to make them fit and try to trust the answers that come out,” says South African hydrologist Professor Graham Jewitt.

“Because many parts of the region are so data poor, we don’t really get those models to work. We think they’re working but quite regularly, where we do have good data, it is clear that most often they are not.”

Jewitt is director of the Centre for Water Resources Research – CWRR – and Umgeni Water Chair of Water Resources Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He and colleagues there and across Southern Africa are producing growing numbers of postgraduates and expanding research in the fields of water resources and climate change.

In the past two years, the centre has strengthened its honours programme and it currently has 14 honours students, with most going on to masters study. It has nearly 30 masters students, some seven full-time and seven part-time PhD students, and three post-doctorates.

Last November the establishment of the African Centre for Global Change and Water Resources Research, which will operate under the auspices of the CWRR on the university’s Pietermaritzburg campus, as a UNESCO Category 2 Water Centre, was approved at the United Nations agency’s 37th general conference in Paris.

Once all the legalities are ironed out and the new African centre is operating, the global status and greater funding from the South African government and others will further boost research and postgraduate training efforts already under way.

But expanding African knowledge production will still be an uphill struggle because, as in other fields, while knowledge, ideas and models flow in from the global North, graduates and experts from the South flow northwards.

“Because we’re not generating enough knowledge in the south, we are knowledge receivers and try to adapt Northern models to fit the region. But the reality is that arid and semi-arid parts of Southern Africa are very different from the areas where those ideas were generated,” Jewitt told University World News.

Climate change research

Climate change is a major research stream of the CWRR’s work. There are four researchers, a post-doctoral fellow, three PhDs and several masters students working on different aspects of climate change.

The work is around understanding uncertainties and seeing how the big global GCM – general circulation model – predictions can be applied to Southern African conditions in the area of water resources. There are three thrusts to the climate change research.

One is taking information from the global forecast models, downscaling it to locally relevant scale and then using hydrological models to calculate what the likely impacts of predicted changes are likely to be on water resources, floods and drought, sea level rise, agriculture and other critical areas.

Another research group is looking at the adaptation measures of society – what people can do to respond to climate change; while the third is delving into the accuracy of the information coming out of the global models, and at the uncertainties of using it for long-term planning.

“There’s a whole science around understanding that uncertainty and how to plan in an even more uncertain future,” Jewitt says. However, he argues: “Global change is more than just climate change. Climate change can be a bit of a distraction from the more local effects of big drivers of change. It is a matter of scale.”

Distractions and disconnects

Climate change is quite often happening at a global scale and over years, whereas some of the more immediate impacts of changes – like economic development driven by globalisation – are far more local, he says.

For example, grassland being replaced by impervious roofs or a car park or highway has a much bigger and more immediate impact than climate change. “This is not to say that in the long term the impact of climate change might not override that. But immediately there’s this very big impact very quickly. And that tends to get lost in the climate change focus.

“I think we lose sight of some of the local development impacts because so much effort is put into climate change.”

Further, argues Jewitt, the climate change adaptation strategies of cities and governments across Africa – and probably around the world – are being delivered by global climate change agendas. While a lot of this effort trickles down to researchers, “the fundamentals of town and regional planning are far less attractive, so they can get lost.

“All those climate change adaptation plans recognise the importance of local adaptation. So actually they should be very closely connected, but often they are not.”

This is likely because the people doing research, frequently driven by international donors, and the people doing the planning are different and are not working together. “There is a disconnect.”

There are exceptions – such as Dr Debra Roberts, deputy head of environmental planning and climate protection in Durban, who is connecting local and global climate change issues, researchers and planners highly effectively – and some scientists.

But this is personality-driven, says Jewitt. “While some researchers are good bridging agents, many others are driven by the project at hand and they just want to do the work, publish the paper, get the productivity units and move on.”

Regional connections

The CWRR is working to use knowledge gained from local experiments in a regional context. The centre has a strong Africa focus and this will be even more so once the African Centre for Global Change and Water Resources Research is up and running.

Approval for the UNESCO Category 2 Water Centre process required endorsement not only from South Africa’s cabinet and the UN agency but also from African governments, which was obtained through regional meetings of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme.

The centre has a number of international projects that involve collaborations in other countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

“We do on the ground research in other countries, we train a lot of their students and we host staff from other universities for postgraduate training,” Jewitt explains. “My most recent PhD graduate is a staff member at the University of Dar es Salaam.”

Indeed, while most of the centre’s postgraduate students are South African, its full-time PhD students are almost entirely from elsewhere in Africa.

The CWRR is part of two networks, with the main one being Waternet, which has 70 members, most of them universities but others non-profits active in water resources management training or research in Southern Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

Waternet has a regional masters programme with two hosts, the universities of Dar es Salaam and Zimbabwe, with each having some 20 students.

CWRR academics teach a module on the masters programme, the university is one of six in the region that host students for specialised courses, and it also teaches modules at the other universities, including on climate change. Waternet now has almost 300 alumni in the region – several of whom have completed PhDs at South African universities.

Currently the centre has a Waternet PhD student researching early warning systems for flood and drought in the Zambezi region. “We’ve just finished a project looking at the consequences of converting land use in the Kilombero basin in Tanzania to sugar cane and teak,” Jewitt says.

There has been a lot of work on the impacts of large-scale changes in rainwater harvesting and irrigation practices in the Pangani catchment in Tanzania, and another rainwater harvesting project working with scientists and students in Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

The other network is the New Partnership for Africa's Development – NEPAD – Water Centres of Excellence initiative, which is establishing a presence in various African countries.

There is a danger, says Jewitt, of duplication exacerbated by the decisions of donors who have become enthusiastic about networks.

“The reality is that in the region, people are resource-hungry so they will take the opportunity. We are the same – we’re part of two networks. In some ways it creates a conflict of interest while in other ways it doesn’t because we can try and get these activities better aligned. But the way donors operate can be a problem.”