Early warning systems vital for disaster risk preparedness

Source: Early warning systems vital for disaster risk preparedness | The Herald 29 NOV, 2019

Early warning systems vital for disaster risk preparedness
(file) The tropical storm destroyed infrastructure and flattened communities as it tore largely through the Manicaland region. – Picture: Believe Nyakudjara

Sifelani Tsiko Agri, Environment & Innovations Editor
One risk management expert once remarked: “Being prepared for a disaster is the best way to minimise losses and recovery time.”

The deadly effects of violent storms and flash floods in recent days in most parts of Zimbabwe have raised important questions about our preparedness for natural disasters. It has forced us as a country to reflect or scrutinise our public safety preparations and the public response to the warnings.

More than five people so far have been killed and property running into thousands of dollars destroyed. There are numerous reasons why people and critical Government agencies have not heeded the warnings.

SADC climate experts and the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) have put out early warnings based on their own findings as well as information received from other climate prediction centres.

Other international weather forecasting agencies such as the Global Agricultural Geo-monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) have also issued out special reports on the Southern Africa 2019 -2020 cropping season. This Geneva-based agency predicts that the entire southern African region is forecast to receive below-average rainfall that may affect crops and reduce yields sharply.

Few of our Government agencies and communities have adhered to the early warning messages. Our councils have not adequately cleared drainage systems or canals for easy passage of floodwater. All this points, first to the need to improve the dissemination of information so that government agencies and everyone in general can heed early warnings in future.

Most local authorities and other vital agencies, such as the Civil Protection Unit (CPU) need to shift from a reactive to a proactive role to implement and map out clearer emergency preparedness plans from now. Unmitigated climate change is hitting us hard and is testing the limits of our way of life and our strategies to absorb shocks that come with this weather phenomenon. Zimbabwe and other SADC countries all have comprehensive disaster risk management strategies in thick volumes.

We have the papers and action plans, but we are all poor when it comes to taking heed of the El Nino alerts from our weather experts, and secondly, to rolling our plans ahead of the impending drought conditions.

Latest regional 2019-2020 early warning system report summaries
Initial predictions issued by climate experts at the 23rd Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SACORF-13), which was held in Angola in August this year, indicated that the bulk of SADC was likely to receive normal to above normal rainfall for most of the period October to December (OND) 2019, with exceptions being northern areas during the October-to-December (OND) period, and central-eastern areas during the January-to-March (JFM) period, where normal to below normal rains are expected.

However, the latest update by the SADC Food Security Early Warning System Agromet for the 2019 – 2019 summer cropping seasons said several member states had downscaled the SARCOF regional forecast and released detailed national-level forecasts.

In these downscaled forecasts, many countries noted enhanced chances of receiving normal to below normal rainfall during the season.

These included eastern Botswana, Lesotho, northern Mozambique, north-eastern Zambia and southern Zimbabwe for the OND forecast period. For JFM, the national forecasts indicated enhanced chances of normal to below normal rainfall in southern Mozambique, most of Namibia, southern half of Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Most other areas in the above-mentioned countries indicated forecasts of normal to above normal seasonal rainfall totals, except for north-eastern and south-western Botswana, as well as northern Mozambique and northern Zambia, where above normal rainfall was forecasted to be the most likely outcome.

“Several international forecasts are indicating high chances of below average seasonal rainfall across the southern half of the SADC region – highlighting uncertainties in light of differences with local forecasts,” the report said.

“Such uncertainties are characteristic of seasonal forecasting in general, and partly influenced by the state of major climate drivers such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Between July and November 2019, several international forecasts, which are updated monthly, have become increasingly more confident of below average DJF and JFM seasonal rainfall outcomes over Southern Africa, and above average rainfall over north-eastern parts of the Region.”

The Global Agricultural Geo-monitoring Initiative (GEOGLAM) said Southern Africa which is in the grip of a crippling drought is set to experience another severe round of drought in the 2019 – 2020 cropping season worsening the food security situation, which has left millions in need of food assistance.

This Geneva-based satellite monitoring observation system said this will worsen the region’s food security position following last year’s drought which ravaged the entire sub-continent. Even climate experts say it’s becoming more complex to make predictions due to rapidly changing conditions and interactions between humans and their environment.

Said Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE) climate scientist Professor Desmond Manatsa: “Climate change has destroyed the relationship between weather, environment and human activities.

“Climate change has destroyed that relationship that we used to have. This has brought uncertainty, which is now affecting forecasting. We do not fully comprehend what climate change has in store for us. Dimensions that we used to have to make predictions with high predictability have been eroded. We are moving towards chaos.”

Highlights: Sadc Food Security Early Warning System Agromet

  • Pasture and water for livestock are in a poor state in some areas due to recurrent droughts
  • Seasonal forecasts indicate enhanced chances of below average seasonal rainfall totals, raising concerns on the backdrop of the severe drought of the 2018/19 season
  • Most parts of the region received near-normal rainfall through early November
  • Short term forecasts suggest an improvement of rainfall through-mid November in several countries, which may result in a timely onset in some areas.

Understanding the phenomenon behind the predicted drought
Prof Manatsa, a scientist, who has been a key figure in efforts to understand the importance of the Indian Ocean dipole in Zimbabwe and at regional and international levels, said factors which were at play in the Indian Ocean could be responsible for the looming drought in southern Africa. He says this year’s Indian Ocean dipole, as the phenomenon is known, has led to sea surface temperature rise. Changes in the Indian Ocean dipole in recent years, he says, have largely determined whether the region receives increased rains and or gets drier weather. This phenomenon is similar to El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific, which cause sharp changes in weather patterns on both sides of the ocean.

“There are many global factors and influences that drive our climate and the kind of weather that we get here in southern Africa,” Prof Manatsa said.

“A lot of these ‘drivers’ come from the oceans around the world. One such driver is the Indian Ocean Dipole, also known as the IOD. To make it simpler, the Indian ocean dipole is like the El Nino, but in the Indian ocean. When it is positive the sea surface temperatures will be warmer in the west, while being cooler in the east of the tropical Indian ocean. The reverse occurs for the negative phase.

“We are currently experiencing the positive Indian ocean dipole phase, which tends to dry out our region while also warming it. The warming component concentrates moisture by enhancing convection, and is responsible for the formation of thunderstorms, which are by their nature very shot-lived and destructive due to the inherent flash floods and wind gusts.
The water is not really useful for agricultural purposes at it is quickly lost to runoff. These thunderstorms are not widespread since the moisture is concentrated in a few areas, hence may leave some regions not having enough rainfall while others experience floods.”

Climate experts say global heating is increasing and this has led to dangerous climate mechanism in the Indian Ocean that contribute to disasters such as bushfires in Australia, floods in parts of Africa and a drought in the bulk of the southern Africa region. They warn that the Indian Ocean dipole threatens to reappear more regularly and in a more extreme form as sea surface temperatures rise.

Invest in weather forecasting technologies
As a country, we need to set our priorities right. Zimbabwe and most other Sadc countries need to invest more in the installation of automated weather stations and radars across the entire sub-continent to help improve the region’s seasonal and longer-term climatic predictions.

We need to scale up our weather forecasting systems to help improve the provision of high quality and reliable climate information services. Our Met Office needs more financial resources to map our climate change risks. We should be worried about the frequency of climate change related disasters.

We are facing a dangerous trend because of the increasing cost of natural disasters. We are fast losing that development dividend because of climate change risks. Every disaster pushes development back and makes our people poorer.

Tropical Cyclone Idai, which tore through parts of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, killing more than 1 000 people and displacing more than 1,5 million others nearly two decades after another cyclone ripped through the region with devastating force destroyed homes, crops, bridges and roads bringing untold hardships to the affected communities.

The southern African nations need more than US$2 billion to repair the damage, according to the World Bank. Our climate scientists complain that investing in meteorological equipment is still not a priority for many countries in the region. While rich industrialised nations are taking climate science seriously and are pouring billions of dollars to upgrade their climate science technologies, Zimbabwe and most other SADC countries are not doing much.

“We are not doing much to invest in our systems. The whole region is not doing enough and we need to change our mindsets when it comes to climate science. We remain very vulnerable as a region and we need to take climate science seriously,” said a Zimbabwean climate change scientist.

Only South Africa has adequate equipment to forecast accurate weather conditions while most other SADC countries are operating using archaic equipment. In 2016, the Meteorological Services Department estimated that it needed up to US$20 million to install automated weather stations and radars across the country’s 59 districts to help improve weather forecasting.

It said, about US$12 million was required for radars to help cover areas where there are no rain gauges or other weather instruments. The country is still unable to know how much rainfall is received in some parts of the country due to lack of weather stations.

An automated weather station cost between US$30 000 and US$45 000. And to install 150 units, Zimbabwe will need between US$4,5 million and US$6,8 million. The SADC Climate Services Centre needs US$2 million a year to strengthen its capacity to produce robust climate information and service that can enhance the region’s response to climate change-related problems.
Without investing in climate technologies, our countries end up relying on international weather forecasting centres, something that can lead to uncertainties or some inaccuracies.

Promoting people-centred early warning system
It is important to promote the people-centred approach to early warning systems to help our communities understand threats and how they can avoid them. Disasters are largely caused by natural hazards, but they also stem simply from people being ignorant, and in the wrong place without adequate protection.

Information must extend to communities so as to facilitate their adoption of protective actions.
The linking of early warning and early action with development aspirations is what motivates people to engage, experts argue. Various factors such as knowledge, power, culture, environment, lifestyle and personality can determine whether people heed warnings.

Zimbabwe has to utilise our telecommunication mobile networks and the media to disseminate information coming from our early warning systems to prevent damage and save lives. Telecommunications can play an important role in using ICTs for disaster risk reduction and management, through the design of national emergency telecommunication plans, setting up early warning and monitoring systems and providing emergency telecommunications equipment when disasters strike.

All this can help warn people about floods and other disasters ahead of time. Back-to-back droughts over the last five years have contributed to poor water, pasture and food security situation in the region. The 2018/2019 rainfall season was one of the driest since 1981, and farmers must be encouraged to grow high yielding short variety crops and adopt various water harnessing strategies for water supply, livestock and gardening.

“Recurring droughts reduce the coping capacity and resilience of farming households in the region, and in some cases reduce the ability of households to fully utilise planting opportunities without external assistance,” said the latest SADC Food Security Early Warning System Agromet report.

“Agriculture-related actions that can be taken to mitigate the impacts of dry conditions include, among others, crop diversification, appropriate mix of drought tolerant and high-yield crop varieties, staggered planting, timely availability of agricultural inputs, climate-smart agricultural practices, and drought-related de-stocking mechanisms. Likewise, areas with high vulnerability to flooding and cyclone impacts also need to prepare for the high likelihood of such eventualities on an annual basis.”

Heed early warning systems
Apart from some of the major barriers facing Zimbabwe and most of its regional counterparts — such as lack of adequate ICT infrastructure, poor funding and investment in this critical sector, at times its simply failure by our Government and local communities to heed early warnings that has led to loss of lives and damage of property.
Zimbabweans have become accustomed to the predictions over the years of imminent El-Nino droughts and floods, viewing these as false alarms.

Yet, over the years, climate experts’ predictions have largely been accurate. For example, predictions of the 2015-2016 drought by the SADC climate scientists were largely accurate. With better scientific modelling and technologies, accuracy has improved.
While climate experts need to up their game to generate robust climate information, efficient communication platforms which are essential for dissemination and knowledge of how to package up the information for users, making use of early warning systems is vital.

Our governments can use the forecasts to predict whether or not they will have a shortfall in the following year – food and other needs such as energy supply. They can then assess budget priorities and request assistance basing their needs on forecast. For instance, United Nations agencies estimate that more than six million Zimbabweans face hunger between now and the next harvest in 2020.

The UN has already launched an appeal for food assistance to the country.
This year, Zimbabwe had 800 000 tonnes in its reserves against a consumption of 1,8 million tonnes. Government can then make projections that its strategic reserve may decline if a drought strikes this season then budget for a bigger shortfall in grain.

And that’s key. In the end, the decision of whether, how and when to respond are political choices made by governments. Having several sets of famine – warning data and analyses can help the government, funders and aid agencies to pick the data and analysis that support their preferred plan of action. With such information, it’s then possible with further actual assessments to determine the needs of affected communities, who should deliver it, where it gets delivered and what kind of aid is required.
Removing all bureaucratic barriers and engaging affected communities is vital.

Disaster preparedness
With accurate data from climate forecasts, it’s then possible to more precisely predict when and where food crises or famines will occur.
It can help us to mobilise resources and respond quickly, reducing both the severity of the emergency and the number of people affected. For example, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET), a USAID-funded initiative, forecasts food security conditions up to 12 months in advance.

Systems like FEWSNET measure social and environmental factors — weather, market prices, migration patterns and harvest yields — to determine vulnerability and predict the likelihood of future emergencies. These are all useful and should help us in all our strategic plans covering critical areas such as food security, health, energy, water, education and other vital social services.

A drought has been forecasted this season and provisions for food imports should be in place as well as knowing the countries and regions which may have surplus grain. Plans should be in place to relocate animals; both domestic and wild animals to areas with better pasture and water.

Local authorities should have water rationing measures, plan water augmentation measures as well as determine the areas that may require water bowsers to enhance access to water. Promoting alternative energy sources is also critical.
The fall in power production levels at Lake Kariba this year are quite instructive. The 2015 – 2016 and 2018 – 2019 droughts should be used as a teachable moment and should set Zimbabwe and other SADC countries to build and manage strategic grain reserves in an efficient and sustainable manner.

The2015 – 2016 famine spell exposed the region’s weak management of strategic grain reserves. Zimbabwe and most other African governments now need to put in place risk-reduction measures that promote drought-tolerant crop varieties, irrigation systems and cash transfers to cushion the impact on farmers. The utilisation of water for irrigation by the agriculture sector is still below capacity, and needs to be urgently revitalised, in Zimbabwe and the region.

Through irrigation infrastructure development with the support of international partners, Zimbabwe and most other countries in the region can tackle problems facing smallholder farmers such as low incomes and living standards, poor nutrition, housing and health and education.

Even though Zimbabwe has made great strides in developing the National Irrigation and Mechanisation Policy, agricultural experts also believe strongly that sand abstraction could provide a key ingredient to boosting food security and tackling water scarcity in drought prone areas.

Government at present is targeting to put 100 000 hectares under irrigation per district to improve production and productivity while at the same time increasing farmers’ resilience and coping mechanisms to climate change effects. The country has about 4,3 million hectares of arable land, with about 2,8 million hectares requiring mechanised agriculture. It is targeting to have 2,5 million hectares under irrigation by 2030 under an irrigation master plan to rehabilitate and establish irrigation facilities.

At present Government is working towards rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure using the target under the Public Service Investment Programme (PSIP), to increase areas under irrigation from the estimated 170 000 hectares that are functional nationally to at least 300 000 hectares.

Tapping into sand abstraction systems and other irrigation methods to improve access to water and food cropping can help Zimbabwe to meet its Sustainable Development Goals on hunger and poverty, creating jobs and improving livelihoods as well as ensuring environmental sustainability.