MBABANE, 25 July (IRIN) - The unreliability
of the weather forecast is an old joke. But in Southern Africa, where cyclones
and droughts have wreaked havoc, the ability of national weather services
to coordinate and properly analyse data collection is deadly serious.
"Daily weather information is well disseminated in the 14 countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and to a certain extent understood, but it is debatable whether [the advice] is followed," SADC consultant Sipho Dlamini told IRIN.
"The science is not yet universally understood. The reports are slowly being appreciated as the national meteorological services deliver them in local idiom. Consequently, in some countries [weather reports] are well followed and in others it is still dismissed as an unreliable joke," said Dlamini, whose office in Mozambique is upgrading the region's meteorological capability.
"No meteorological service organisation operates profitably, as most products are for the public good," Dlamini said. "The present practitioners in the SADC countries are national meteorological services, universities and research institutes, such as in agriculture."
The average person sees the weatherman as someone who will tell him or her whether to carry an umbrella that day. But data collected from satellites and ground stations provide information essential to drought prediction and thus food security, not to mention the needs of the construction and insurance industries.
"Agricultural practice in the region still strongly depends on rainfall, [and] very few commercial farmers in some countries use irrigation. Therefore, meteorology plays a very important part in food security," said Dlamini.
Some 70 percent of natural disasters, and diseases such as cholera and malaria, are weather related. In Southern Africa, the most common climate-related emergencies are tropical cyclones originating in the Indian Ocean that bring heavy flooding when they pass over the Seychelles, Comoros, Reunion and Madagascar, before striking the African landmass on the western coast of Mozambique and South Africa.
Senanele Shongwe, a meteorologist with the Swaziland National Weather Service, told IRIN: "Our country is in its third year of drought, and for preparedness we rely on the coordinated data collection from all the regional weather services."
The SADC Drought Monitoring Centre (DMC), located in Zimbabwe, works to minimise the impact of droughts and floods through an early warning system that allows areas at risk to plan ahead.
"Unfortunately, the level of socio-economic development in a particular country is oftentimes the limiting factor with respect to the amelioration of negative impacts of climatic extremes, such as flood or drought," said Dlamini. "But the DMC-Harare as well as other local institutions have contributed considerably to the understanding of both the temporal and spatial rainfall variability in Southern Africa."
"As a meteorologist, I admire how far my counterparts in Mozambique have gone, starting with nothing," said Swazi meteorologist Sandile Gamede, whose own county did not have a national weather service until 1992. "They are putting in a lot of training and, like us, they benefit as members of the World Meteorological Organisation [WMO]."
WMO is a UN body whose members are all national weather services that share information through a private internet-like network called the Global Telecommunications System.
"Population settlement patterns are taking into consideration the drought probabilities we provide," said Shongwe. "Structural engineers and architects designing bridges, highways and buildings come to us for rainfall and flooding histories of the area where they want to build, so they can construct to withstand what the weather might bring."
National weather services are providing data used by insurance companies concerned about lightning strikes and flooding to set policy premiums.
There would be no aviation without reliable weather data. "Aircraft depend on meteorological conditions for their safety and routing. This is a worldwide concern. Thus, there is a whole branch of operational meteorology devoted to aviation. No plane leaves an airport before receiving the weather information along its route, from takeoff to landing ports," said Dlamini.
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