Lightning Strikes: How installing a modern lightning detecting system in Malawi is saving lives and livelihoods

News and Press Release
Originally published
View original
© UNDP Malawi

As another year of devastating events unfolds, including Cyclone Idai - one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere – natural disasters are a constant reminder to us that whatever progress we have been making in reducing disaster risk, we need to do more.

One area where risk-informed development investments pay dividends is lightning detection systems.

Lightning mortalities are higher in developing countries for a variety of reasons: a higher proportion of the workforce is engaged in outdoor labour, fewer lightning-safe buildings are available to shelter in, countries in tropical climates suffer 78% of all lightning events, and in the absence of readily-accessible medical facilities, lightning injuries are more likely to become fatal.

Malawi’s annual death rate from lightning ‘is extremely high compared to other countries in the world’, 16 times higher than similar sub-regions in South Africa, and 50 times higher than that for the US.

It doesn’t have to be like this.


Malawi faces more intense and frequent climate-related disasters including floods, droughts, and extreme weather events that threaten losses of life, assets, and food security. Vulnerability to climate change impacts is high, with shifts in the rainfall season, longer dry seasons, and reductions in the growing season already occurring. With 85% of the population living in rural areas, and over half in poverty, protecting rural farmers is a clear priority.

In direct response to this need, a project, funded by the Green Climate Fund, Scaling up the Use of Modernized Climate Information and Early Warning systems (M-CLIMES)_, is working to improve early warning weather and climate information systems to protect vulnerable communities.

Implemented by Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA), in partnership with Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) and UNDP support, the project is working to expand the meteorological network by installing automatic weather stations, hydrological monitoring stations, and lake-based weather buoys. These efforts will in turn increase the capacity to identify risks and forecast impacts with precision.

One concrete way that the project is working to protect lives and livelihoods is through lightning detection sensors - detectors calculate the direction and severity of lightning - indicating storm strength and able to precisely locate lighting during a thunderstorm – and warn rural communities.

To date, DCCMS, with project support, has installed eight lightning detection sensors across the country to detect lightning and thunder.

Resulting information will be better disseminated through mobile, internet, and radio channels targeting vulnerable farming communities, as well as fishing communities around Lake Malawi. Flood modelling for river systems will be improved, increasing warning times from 6 hours and under to 24-48 hours.

Working with the private sector, including telecoms and micro and small enterprises, the project will work to ensure that people know what to do with this enhanced weather information.

By raising awareness with affected communities, the capacity of local communities, district councils, and national agencies to respond to emergencies will be strengthened through training and improved emergency services.

Through these efforts, it is anticipated that 2.1 million people will benefit from increased resilience.


In April 2019, in Lilongwe, DCCMS trained 14 meteorologists in lightning detection methodologies to operate on the department’s newly-procured system, which will help to reduce the burdens the country suffers due to lightning.

Researchers have noted that in Malawi, ‘lightning is indeed a very serious threat to the country’s socio-economic development’ owing to the higher probability that young labourers in their prime earning years are struck, the high costs of lightning injuries (including hearing damage, chronic pain, and psychological wounds), and the devastation that results from premature death.

Speaking in Lilongwe at the April training, DCCMS Deputy Director for Engineering and Communication Rodrick Walusa said:

“The sensors will help to warn the general public to increase caution and vigilance, particularly in areas where lightning is projected to strike.”

He said the department, through the M-CLIMES project - saw the need to support the government of Malawi to procure the equipment to help reduce deaths caused by lightning.

'We have had plans to procure the equipment, but due to high costs of the equipment we failed to procure it. With the coming in of the M-CLIMES project, funding was made available and finally we have managed to procure and install in eight centres across the country’, said Walusa.

‘The idea is to monitor development of storms when they develop and track where they are originating from and how far they will go. The sensors will then send messages to our servers where controlling officers will analyse the data and notify the authorities to warn people in targeted areas.’

He said the installation of the sensors will help other institutions throughout the country that need data on lightning for various uses, and will also help scientists and academicians working on lightning research.

The system will also send accurate messages to air traffic controllers to be able to advise pilots on weather at the station en route to their destination and avoid fatalities and shocks that are caused due to poor or failed landing as a result of weather and storms.


The lightning sensors have been installed in Chitipa, Mzuzu, Bangula in Nsanje, Dwanga, Kasungu National Park, Malingunde, Chileka International Airport, and Malingunde in Lilongwe.


Climate action and resilience-building efforts will save lives and livelihoods. Managing disaster risk and risk-informed development investments pay dividends in multiple sectors and geographies, across all scales, and throughout social, economic, financial and environmental fields.

This project and other UNDP supported initiatives are also advancing Malawi’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, this project supported progress on achieving SDG 1 on poverty, SDG2 on zero hunger, SDG3 on good health and well-being, SDG6 on clean water and sanitation, SDG 13 on climate action and SDG 15 on life on land among others.

For more information on the project, please visit the project profile here and here.