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Climate Change, State Fragility and the New CHIRPS Dataset

Syria migration

Reuters/Rodi Said

By Dr. Colin Kelley, Senior Research Fellow, The Center for Climate and Security

In order to better understand the nexus linking climate change and state fragility, we need to better grasp the effects of climatic changes, particularly in rainfall and temperature, at the regional, national and subnational levels, and what they mean for resource availability.  Enter a new data product called CHIRPS.

The USAID Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), in conjunction with scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara, recently developed a new precipitation dataset in support of drought monitoring called CHIRPS (Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station data). CHIRPS has already been utilized successfully for this purpose, but also has other far reaching implications that will be important for better understanding of subnational to global security dynamics. These include an improved characterization of resilience in regions and states that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and variability.

The new dataset combines station data on the ground with remotely sensed (satellite) data, providing a valuable thirty-five year record (from 1981 to the present) of historical rainfall context.  Perhaps the most important improvement represented by this dataset, spanning 50°S-50°N and all longitudes, lies in its very high (0.05°) spatial resolution satellite imagery, which is combined with in situ station data to create gridded rainfall time series for trend analysis and seasonal drought monitoring, on daily, dekadal (10-day) and monthly timescales.

These advancements have enabled a better comparison of current rainfall patterns with historical climatologies, or long-term averages, at the subnational scale over much of the world, thus providing a key drought early warning system for development and relief agencies, insurance companies and others to more effectively activate and manage their strategies, particularly in regions where station data have been sparse.

The CHIRPS team, led by Pete Peterson (CHG) and Chris Funk (CHG and USGS), is actively involved in fostering increased cooperation with national meteorological services to augment CHIRPS with additional station data, past and present, to provide a more accurate historical rainfall climatology.  A big part of CHIRPS’s success as a drought-monitoring tool begins with a dependable climatology and then using advanced techniques to blend in station data, particularly in places where adequate monitoring did not previously exist.

In East Africa, where rainfall is strongly linked to El Nino variability, these data have allowed for better anticipation of drought and famine emergencies, providing invaluable information for decision-making agencies that supply food aid or other relief.  Ethiopia has recently experienced terrible drought, placing an untenable strain on its food supply.  FEWS NET was able to use CHIRPS data along with evidence of the strengthening El Nino last year to help sound the alarm that drought conditions were likely to worsen, providing valuable information to draw attention to the crisis and allow decision-makers to better allocate resources for emergency response.

Beyond drought monitoring, CHIRPS is also being used in climate vulnerable regions in support of ‘index insurance,’ which essentially provides farmers the option of purchasing insurance against low rainfall, thus providing a vital measure of resilience to weather related disasters.  The higher spatial resolution and accuracy of rainfall data provided by CHIRPS enables better actuarial information that insurers can use to set rates and make payouts.  As the framework improves, insurance companies will deem these ventures more profitable, allowing for larger scale expansion across the developing world and vital enhancement of resilience.

As mentioned, CHIRPS offers better characterization of rainfall climatology, variability and trends in a historical context and therefore could be used in conjunction with other socioeconomic and geopolitical variables to better understand overall nation-state resilience and fragility.  The defense and intelligence communities regard climate change as a “threat multiplier” – an exacerbating factor with respect to existing vulnerabilities such as food and water insecurity – particularly in arid and semiarid regions.   CHIRPS will help us better assess that threat multiplication.

Looking to past examples of the confluence of climate change, natural resource management and state fragility helps illustrate the future utility of CHIRPs.  Prior to the uprisings in early 2011, Syria was widely regarded by experts as stable . A recent examination  (by Femia, Werrell and Sternberg) of popular indices of nation-state fragility and climate vulnerability corroborated this belief.   Prediction of state failure or conflict is a highly complex undertaking involving numerous variables, including governance, economy, access to water and climate.  Utilizing tools such as CHIRPS to better understand the importance and influence of rainfall on subnational to regional scales and at timescales ranging from days to months could provide a meaningful step forward in improving existing indices of state fragility.  Such analysis, utilizing CHIRPS’s improved drought monitoring, could be essential to producing better overall resilience monitoring.

Peterson, Funk and colleagues are already looking toward putting together a similar data set for global surface temperature.  As with droughts, heat waves can have dire consequences for agriculture in developing countries.  Yemen is an example of a highly agrarian society that has experienced a robust increase in surface temperature over recent decades.   This climate change has served to decrease the soil moisture, placing an even greater burden on groundwater, which has been declining dramatically.  It should come as no surprise then that Yemen has been embroiled in violent conflict over the last year stemming from a combination of environmental stress, poor governance and other factors.

Decision-makers require the best possible information to make informed choices.  A closer examination of regional to subnational climate change (rainfall and temperature) and resource availability change has the potential to provide better information with which to greatly improve state fragility indices.

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