Upgrading weather services will save lives, money - report

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 November 2013 12:15 GMT

A flood gauge sits in the Morganza Spillway in Morganza, Louisiana, on May 14, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner

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Improving meteorological services and early warning systems in developing nations could save 23,000 lives a year, and produce between $3 billion and $30 billion annually in economic benefits

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Upgrading meteorological services and early warning systems in developing nations could save an average of 23,000 lives a year, and produce between $3 billion and $30 billion annually in economic benefits from disaster reduction, says a new report urging governments to modernise their weather and water-monitoring agencies.

Weather, climate and water information is becoming more important as governments try to minimise growing economic losses from natural hazards such as storms, droughts and floods, and  help countries adapt to climate change.

But the agencies that provide this vital information have become degraded over the past two decades in many regions, mainly due to low visibility, underfunding, economic reforms, and in some cases conflict, according to the report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), a partnership managed by the World Bank.

In Laos, for example, measurements of rainfall and water levels on the Mekong River - intended to provide flood alerts - are done entirely manually by low-paid, part-time staff, meaning errors can creep into the data, or monitoring does not actually happen.

“In many areas of the world, national meteorological and hydrological services lack the necessary capacity and resources, and sometimes even the political recognition, they need to deliver on their critical tasks of protecting lives and livelihoods. Our global system for monitoring weather and climate is suffering as a result,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said in a statement.

“Far too many lives were lost because of typhoon Haiyan (in the Philippines). But without the regular and accurate warnings issued by meteorological services in the Philippines and Vietnam, the death toll would have been even higher,” he said.

Meteorological and hydrological services in more than 100 countries — over half of these in Africa — need to be modernised, the report argued.

This will require investment in developing nations of more than $1.5 billion to $2 billion, as well as at least $400 million to $500 million per year to support the operations of the modernised systems, the report added.

But financial support remains inadequate, partly because some internationally backed efforts have had only limited success, the report said. Problems include a lack of training and technical support to run and maintain new hardware, too many uncoordinated projects by donors, and weak commitment by governments to keep the services working well.


"Investment in strengthening national meteorological and hydrological agencies is...urgently needed to reduce the impact of weather-related disasters,” said Francis Ghesquiere, head of the GFDRR secretariat and manager of disaster risk management practice at the World Bank. "Although costs for modernising and sustaining these services are not negligible, it’s well worth the investment in terms of lives saves and economic losses averted."

Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice president for sustainable development, noted that every dollar spent on early warning saves up to $35 in disaster response. "As the intensity and frequency of extreme weather increase as a result of climate change, we have to shift our focus to prevention and preparedness,” she said.

Timely and accurate weather forecasting is also key for helping smallholder farmers adapt to more extreme weather and shifts in the seasons that are confusing traditional cultivation calendars for many. But few have access to such information.

In a recent survey among small-scale farming and fishing communities in Kenya, 74 percent of the 401 respondents rated the weather and climate information they were receiving as only somewhat useful to their operational decisions, the report said. The main reasons were that scientific forecasts were formulated on a much wider geographic scale than could be used by farmers, and were often presented in a language and format unfamiliar to them.

Pilot projects are underway in some countries to make hydro-meteorological information more relevant and accessible - from a text message service for Ugandan fishermen to comprehensive advice on weather and planting for farmers in Tanzania.

Initiatives like this have yet to become widespread, but that could be starting to change. Last week, the Norwegian government announced nearly $10 million in funding for the "Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa", which will be implemented by the WMO together with other U.N. agencies, research organisations and the Red Cross.

Beginning in Malawi and Tanzania, it aims to provide more and better climate services that will allow farmers to fine-tune their planting based on seasonal forecasts, enable disaster risk managers to prepare for droughts and heavy rains, assist public health services to limit climate-related disease outbreaks such as malaria and meningitis, and help improve the management of water resources.

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