boat on lake victoria

Saving lives on Lake Victoria

10 December 2011

The Met Office has a long-standing commitment to help developing countries improve their meteorological services. Recently, we supported an effort led by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with the Uganda Department of Meteorology and global telecommunications company Ericsson, to set up a Mobile Weather Alert service on Lake Victoria, Africa — and help protect the lives of the people who depend on this huge stretch of water for their livelihoods.

Most people associate lakes with placid waters - but this is not always the case, as the 200,000 fishermen on Lake Victoria can testify. Bordering Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, Lake Victoria is the size of Ireland, making it large enough to create its own weather. Conditions can change suddenly, with winds quickly whipping up six-foot waves that can capsize ferries and fishing boats. Many lives are lost each year on the lake so the Met Office has helped set-up the Mobile Weather Alert Service, launched in May 2011, to help fishermen avoid dangerous weather conditions.

Bringing life-saving forecasting to the region

Through this service, forecasters at the Uganda Department of Meteorology have adopted the Met Office system of colour-coded weather warnings. Text messages are sent to the mobile phones of local fishermen, giving them the opportunity to plan their day and take appropriate action if conditions look too rough. Before its launch there were no forecasting services relevant to fishermen in the region, making access to weather information - and therefore forward planning - incredibly difficult.

The project was led by the WMO and its Development and Regional Activities Department, to which Tom Butcher, External Relations Manager at the Met Office, was seconded for a year working on a range of initiatives including the Mobile Weather Alert Project. To help take the Lake Victoria project from concept to reality, he also drew on the vital expertise of people within the Met Office, including Chief Forecaster, Paul Davies.

A system that works for everyone

Tom and Paul worked with the project partners to devise an alert system that built on the Met Office's long experience of issuing tailored severe weather warnings to a variety of user communities in the UK. To support the project on an ongoing basis, the Met Office has set up a 4 km resolution weather forecast model over Lake Victoria. This helps to capture more accurate information about the local weather conditions.

It was a necessary step, as Tom explains: "A lot of the weather patterns on the lake happen on quite a small scale and are driven by the difference in temperature between the lake's water and the surrounding land. You get warm moist air at night, rising above the lake and sucking in colder air from over the land surface - a convective process that creates a lot of storms."

The next step involved working in partnership with the forecasters at the Uganda Department of Meteorology. Paul worked with them to understand where the gaps were in the forecast process - and advised on changes to improve the way they were producing forecasts.

To truly help the local community, however, the project had to look beyond weather. As Tom explains, "Safety on the lake is a compound problem that requires a compound solution. You need to be working on it from several different angles in order to have a genuine impact."

Tom Butcher, Met Office External Relations Manager, talking to Lake Victoria fishermen and Lake Rescue  

This is why the project pulled together expertise from several different bodies, including a Ugandan-based Lake Rescue. It was especially vital to use Lake Rescue's links with the community of fishermen. As Tom puts it, "Even if you have a neat technical solution, you can't assume it's going to work".

With Lake Rescue and Paul's help, and feedback from the fishermen, colleagues from the Uganda Department of Meteorology adopted a meaningful way of conveying the alert messages: a traffic light system. It's an elegantly simple solution created by the Met Office that gets around any literacy issues, with each colour representing forecast, hazard rating and advice, all in one.

For example, green means winds of less than five knots and no significant weather conditions predicted; a very low hazard threshold; and 'nil' advice. Whereas red means a high likelihood of winds over 20 knots, or severe thunderstorms; a high hazard threshold; and advice to 'take action'.

An enthusiastic reception

To roll out the pilot, Tom led a training workshop for the local fishermen, together with his colleagues from the WMO, the Uganda Department of Meteorology, Ericsson and Lake Rescue. They trained 20 people in how to interpret the weather alert messages and what appropriate action to take. They also advised them on how to pass on this knowledge to other fishermen.

The reception of the project was highly enthusiastic. Within a few weeks those 20 fishermen had recruited over 1,000 people to take part in the pilot. What's more, it turned out to be a tool that really is saving lives.

"There was a windstorm back in June that triggered an alert," recounts Paul. "We worked closely with the Uganda Department of Meteorology to forecast, and later alert fishermen of, an enhanced risk of damaging winds over the lake. This is a partnership that works extremely well in real-time," he adds.

Looking to the future, the WMO and Met Office want to extend the project across Lake Victoria. "We're hoping to go from 1,000 subscribers to 200,000," says Tom. It's a great leap in numbers, but as far as the locals are concerned, it will also be a great leap forward in safety and peace of mind.

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