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Predicting how climate and politics affect stability in Africa

Data mapping the future of a continent


CCAPS dashboard. Red represents areas of high climate vulnerability
and yellow represents areas of low climate vulnerability. Grey circles
represent scores for aid deployment in local regions and red circles
represent local conflict levels. Image courtesy the Robert S. Strauss

With climate change devastating African communities through droughts, floods, and other disasters, researchers have developed an online mapping tool that analyzes how climate and other forces interact to threaten populations.

The Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) program was piloted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 after receiving a $7.6 million (€6.14 million) five-year grant from the Minerva Initiative with the US Department of Defense.

CCAPS comprises nine research teams focused on various aspects of climate change, their relationship to different types of conflict, the government structures that exist to mitigate them, and the effectiveness of international aid in intervening.

The online mapping tool was developed by the CCAPS program to integrate its various lines of climate, conflict, and aid research. Their current mapping tool is based on a prototype they developed to assess conflict patterns in Africa with the help of researchers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), according to Ashley Moran, program manager of CCAPS.

"The mapping tool is a key part of our effort to produce new research that could support policy making, and the work of practitioners and governments in Africa," Moran said. "We want to communicate this research in ways that are of maximum use to policymakers and researchers."

The initial prototype of the mapping tool used the ArcGIS platform’s geographic information systems to project data onto maps. Working with its partner, Development Gateway, CCAPS expanded the system to incorporate conflict, vulnerability, governance, and aid research data.

Later this year, the maps will also incorporate data on future climate vulnerability, derived from regional climate model simulations designed by Edward Vizy and Kerry Cook, both members of the CCAPS team from the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas.

Vizy and Cook ran three, 20-year nested simulations of the African continent's climate at the regional scales of 90 and 30 kilometers (56 miles and 19 miles), using a derivation of the Weather Research and Forecasting Model of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. One was a control simulation representative of the years 1989 to 2008, and the others represented the climate as it may exist in 2041 to 2060, and 2081 to 2100.

Each simulation took two months to complete on TACC’s Ranger high-performance computer.

"We couldn't run these simulations without the high-performance computing resources at TACC. If it takes two months running with 200 processors, I can't fathom doing it with one processor," Vizy said.

Assessing vulnerability  

Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to its reliance on rain-fed agriculture and the inability of many of its governments to help communities in times of need.

"Africa is a region of increasing importance for US national security. On the positive side, it is a place with a growing population, growing economic strengths, and growing resource importance; on the negative side, people are worried about non-state actors, potential weak states, and humanitarian disasters," said Francis Gavin, professor of international affairs and director of the Strauss Center.

The vulnerability mapping program within CCAPS is led by Joshua Busby, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

To determine the vulnerability of a given location based on changing climate conditions, Busby and his team looked at four different sources: 1) the degree of physical exposure to climate hazards, 2) population size, 3) household or community resilience, and 4) the quality of governance or presence of political violence.

Busby and his team created composite maps and gathered data from a variety of places, including historic models of physical exposure from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), population estimates from LandScan, as well as household surveys and governance assessments from the World Bank's World Development Indicator and Worldwide Governance Indicator.

Some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change include Somalia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Sudan. Knowing this allows local policymakers to develop security strategies for the future, such as early warning systems against floods, and investments in drought-resistant agriculture.

Aside from publishing their research in various journals, the CCAPS team carries out regular consultations with the US government and governments in Africa, and participates in conferences sponsored by concerned organizations, such as the United Nations and the United States Africa Command.

Gavin said, "What this project has shown us is that many of the real challenges of the 21st century aren't always in traditional state-to-state interactions, but are transnational in nature."

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