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Early warning can cut climate disaster losses in Africa

by Whitney Mulobela | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 16:05 GMT

In this April 2009 file photo, a man walks past his flooded home in Sitoto village, in Zambia's Western Province. REUTERS/Mackson Wasamunu

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A UN-backed programme is strengthening climate information and alerting systems in 11 of Africa's poorest countries

For the past year, a national climate information and early warning system has helped Benin avoid major weather-linked disasters like the 2010 floods that killed 46 people and affected nearly 700,000 in the West African coastal country.

Global warming is changing temperature and rainfall patterns across Africa, leading to more frequent and intense droughts and floods, and increasing the need for better protection, experts say.

In response, Benin launched an early warning system in January 2015, which feeds into a National Disaster Management Agency.

The agency alerts those who could be in danger from weather-related hazards such as flash floods, according to Arnaud Bruno Zannou, director general of water resources at the Ministry of Water.

Thanks to a multi-country initiative called Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA), supported by the U.N. Development Programme, all Benin’s institutions that collect climate information are now working together under one umbrella.

They include the country’s meteorological agencies, the national water department and the oceanographical institute, as well as organisations that release the information to the public.

The information is used in two ways: to act swiftly to head off disasters, and to plan a national climate strategy for the agriculture, health, energy, water and transport sectors.

Benin has installed equipment to strengthen its observations of meteorological, hydrological and sea conditions.

It now boasts 20 automatic weather stations, 25 hydrological stations to monitor river levels and five oceanographic stations. These stations collect data and transmit it every hour to a central computer server.


Confidence in the country’s early warning system is on the rise, Zannou said.

Before it was launched, different weather agencies would gather data and sometimes give conflicting information to the public, he added. 

“There were so many institutions that were releasing information when there was a threat of either flooding,” he said. “Now only one national institution has this mandate.

The various organisations now understand what role each is playing - from data collection to dissemination of weather and climate information.

When a potential emergency looms, the National Disaster Management Agency is tasked with alerting local leaders and authorities in the affected area, as well as the media.

Benin’s early warning system has four levels: green, yellow, orange and red. Warnings are issued for situations classified as orange and red.

That has helped reduce damage to infrastructure and avoid deaths on a number of occasions, Zannou said.  

“Because we communicated (the threat) early, like five days before, people were removed from the at-risk area, and lives were saved,” he said.


Across Africa, people die needlessly because they do not receive timely information on extreme weather, experts say.

The CIRDA programme supports projects to improve climate information and early warning systems in 11 of Africa’s least developed countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Malawi, Sao Tome, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

“Climate information and early warning systems can save lives, improve livelihoods and build resilience across Africa,” CIRDA programme manager Bonizella Biagini told a recent conference in Livingstone.

The programme engages with government ministries and national hydro-meteorological services to test new approaches and technologies that could help decision makers better protect vulnerable communities.

“Over the past three decades, floods and droughts have cost Zambia $13.8 billion - which is equivalent to a 0.4 percent loss in annual economic growth,” said Jacob Nkomoki, director of the Zambia Meteorological Department.

With earlier warning and more effective planning, the hope is that at least some of those costs will be avoided, now and in the future.


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