ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There are many lasting reminders of war. In Rwanda, it's the weather forecasts. The country's weather tracking system was destroyed in its civil war and genocide more than 20 years ago. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on efforts to rebuild it.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Before the genocide, here's how Rwanda recorded weather data - they had about 100 volunteers scattered across the country - local teachers, church leaders - who, every day, would write down the measurements collected at these little outdoor observation stations. Picture of a box on stilts with thermometers inside, a gauge for measuring rainfall.
After the war, the man charged with resurrecting Rwanda's weather agency - his name is Didace Musoni - traveled the countryside to check on the stations.
DIDACE MUSONI: Many of these stations have been abandoned. The fencing would be torn. Instruments were destroyed.
AIZENMAN: As for the volunteers who had manned the stations, many had been murdered in the genocide. Most of the rest had fled. Now there were cases of heroic station volunteers who came forward to deliver data they'd managed to keep collecting during the war.
MUSONI: We had people walking long distances to bring the data to us.
AIZENMAN: They included a teenage girl whose father had been a volunteer. He had been killed, but she'd kept his reports and offered to continue his work. Musoni says he'll never forget the day she showed up.
MUSONI: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was very, very, very moving, you know?
AIZENMAN: But for the most part, Musoni had to reassemble the station network from scratch, and this at a time the new government was struggling to rebuild the whole country. So it wasn't until around 2010 that Rwanda finally got all the weather stations back in operation. And that meant that for a roughly 15-year stretch after the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has almost no record of what its weather was like.
MUSONI: That period was totally lost. It is data that will never, never, never be recovered.
AIZENMAN: Or will it? Enter Tufa Dinku. He's a climate scientist at Columbia University who runs a program to help countries in Africa improve their climate tracking services. Two years ago, he turned his attention to Rwanda. At first, he found that 15-year gap in weather information daunting.
TUFA DINKU: So my first reaction was it cannot be this bad, so I went back to the data. And then I said, wow, it's true. It is really this bad.
AIZENMAN: But he was determined to find a solution because the consequences of the missing data are serious, and not just for regular forecasting.
DINKU: So you have heard about El Nino, for example.
AIZENMAN: El Nino, the ocean-warming phenomenon that crops up every few years and alters world weather patterns. In some places, it leads to drought. In parts of Africa, it can mean lots of extra rainfall leading to flooding, surges in diseases linked to mosquitoes. We've been in the midst of one of the biggest El Ninos in recent history. Governments have been consulting the records to see where the effects hit hardest during the last big one in 1997. But in Rwanda -
DINKU: What do you do? There is no reference for Rwanda.
AIZENMAN: But Columbia University's Dinku had some ideas for how to build a substitute data record from alternate sources. He estimated rainfall using satellite imagery, temperature by working with computer models. Late last year, Dinku completed the new data set. He's still perfecting it, but a colleague at Columbia, Jim Hansen, is already putting it to use.
JIM HANSEN: I think a lot of the world is going to be watching Rwanda over the next few years.
AIZENMAN: Because Hansen is now working with Rwanda's government on a groundbreaking system for getting small farmers detailed seasonal forecasts based on the new data. That way, they can make better decisions on, say, what crops to plant. And while sure, he says, a weather service alone won't end poverty -
HANSEN: It may help a lot of the other efforts to end poverty to be more effective.
AIZENMAN: Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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