East Africa and Arabia Prepare for a Shared Climate Future

by Eric Ellman

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paused during his meetings with East African leaders last week to commend the Republic of Djibouti for hosting a summit that produced an initiative to address regional threats to stability from climate change.  Over its six-year lifetime, the Yale-led East Africa and Arabia Climate Impact Assessment Taskforce (EAACIAT) would invite talent from institutions across the Horn of Africa to use high-resolution climate predictions to guide water resource, public health, agriculture and other critical infrastructure decisions over the next 85 years.

Dr. Jalludin Mohamed, director of Djibouti’s Center for Research and Studies (CERD), explained the significance of the proposed new higher-resolution model: “General Circulation Models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are based on grids whose pixels are up to 250 km wide. That is half the size of Djibouti.  They attempt to describe our future climate in one or two pixels.”  The EAACIAT assessment, by comparison, will provide information on a 4-km grid, says Mark Pagani, Director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, which leads the project.  “Data at that level of precision can support practical decision-making to guide resiliency efforts.”

Djiboutian concerns regarding the changing climate are shared by its Horn of Africa neighbors, including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, which the IPCC collectively considers among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change[1].  Famines in Ethiopia and Somalia killed more than half a million people in the 1980s and early 1990s[2].  Last summer the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Relief announced that 14MM people in the region were again at risk from consequences of recurrent drought.[3]  “I get it,” said Taskforce leader Pagani, speaking with African hydrologists and hydro-geologists at the summit, “water is your prime concern.”  

Understanding precipitation trends in East Africa has been an elusive goal. General Circulation Models in use by the IPCC and others project future annual rainfall increasing by as much as 20%[4], which stands in contrast to local experience with persistent and reoccurring drought.  Regional leaders like Jalladin Mohamed of CERD and signatory to the agreement with Yale, is more concerned with other models that predict rainfall dropping in the region.

Taskforce member William Boos from Yale, an atmospheric dynamicist and leading expert on the mechanics of monsoons, ascribes the lack of consensus to a paucity of studies.  As opposed to populous West Africa, whose weather influences hurricane formation in the North Atlantic, East Africa receives less study.  “The region has fallen through the cracks,” says Boos, who adds hopefully, “better predictability may not require decades of investigation, as no one’s really made the effort so far.”

That effort could begin soon, now that the Djiboutian government has signed a document with the Yale Climate and Energy Institute obliging them to raise funds to start the first 3-year phase of their long-range high-resolution climate assessment in time for the IPCC Council of Parties meeting that begins in Paris in November.  Among the most eagerly anticipated developments at that meeting is progress on the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which aims to provide $100BB annually to developing countries to respond to the consequences of climate change, for which understanding the scope of impending change is essential.

Dr. Ethan Chorin, a Yale ‘91 NELC major and CEO of Perim Associates LLC,  organized Djibouti’s Environmental Risks and Opportunities Summit and invited YCEI to submit the proposal for the Yale-led Taskforce.  Chorin is a noted academic and policy expert on Libya and East Africa, a former Foreign Service Officer and member of the 2008 Obama’s Foreign Policy Group.   Perim Associates, will work with international funders and the government of Djibouti to raise $3.2MM to initiate EAACIAT’s core science program.   He notes this is a part of a deeper effort to raise Djibouti’s environmental policy profile, and to build on the country’s notable developments in transport and logistics capacity over the last 10 years.  ”One of Djibouti’s goal’s is to demonstrate in Paris that EAACIAT provides climate forecasting capacity that is a logical and necessary starting point for regional resiliency planning.”