Saving lives by reading the rain

26 March 2014

A pilot rainfall Early Warning System (EWS) for disaster management — designed with Met Office input — looks set to make life safer in the mountainous north-west of Rwanda.

As is typical in the tropics, when it rains in Rwanda it really does pour. When torrential rainfall comes to the heavily populated Gishwati area, its effects can be devastating. Severe deforestation over recent decades has led to degraded mountain soil and erosion that not only cause fatal flash flooding, but treacherous landslides too.

Rising to the challenge through partnership

Designed to tackle one of Rwanda's most pressing public safety problems, the pilot rainfall EWS is a Met Office collaboration supporting multiple partners. These include Metéo Rwanda, the national meteorological office, as well as the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR) and the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority (REMA).

"Designed to tackle one of Rwanda's most pressing public safety problems, the pilot rainfall Early Warning System sees the Met Office supporting multiple partners."

Seasonal forecast training, which included a Regional Climate Outlook Forum - a first for Rwanda - is the second key strand of Met Office support.

Both initiatives follow preliminary work by the Met Office's Helen Ticehurst, who spent 2011 in Rwanda, focussing on capacity building.

"During her year, Helen started scoping out what an EWS might eventually look like," explains Bill Leathes, Met Office International Development Manager. "Having someone on the ground at that early stage was extremely useful."

The starting point: listening to users

Bill's Met Office team worked with Metéo Rwanda's Chief Forecaster Anthony Twahirwa and REMA's project manager Alphonse Mutabazi to first identify what rainfall information was needed. This 'bottom up' approach involved bringing service providers and users together through workshops and visits to disaster managers in the field. Previously, weather services were set up with little user engagement.

"For example, did users need to know what's going to happen in two hours, two days or throughout the rainy season?" says Bill. "By asking the right questions, we were able to come up with two main types of product: a five-day rainfall planner and a warning service for when conditions are looking particularly dangerous."

The five-day rainfall planner is now live and emailed out every six hours from Metéo Rwanda to all central ministries who are represented on the National Disaster Management Committee (DMC), as well as local DMC members. The warning service highlights specific events that could bring danger to lives and property.

Both services are designed to use existing communications systems, although there remains work to be done to maximise MIDIMAR's text-based infrastructure and network.

Making the most of EWS potential

Once the pilot EWS products were designed, there was still plenty to do. While Alphonse Mutabazi at REMA managed EWS matters outside the Met Office contract - including the procurement of 22 new automatic weather stations - the Met Office focused on developing standard operating procedures as part of the introduction of a quality management system.

"We've delivered a great deal of mentoring and training," adds Bill Leathes, "both for experienced forecasters as well as newly qualified people - a number of which had already trained with us through a previous project."

Looking ahead to 'Stage 2'

Although proof of the pilot's effectiveness will only come in the February to May rainy season, the Met Office and our Rwanda partners already have an eye to the future. Aspects of the EWS could be decentralised to district level. And new warning systems could focus on other weather threats such as lightning, fog or floods - as well as other geographical areas.

As EWS roles and responsibilities continue to be defined and refined, Rwanda's people face the future in a country that's thankfully not only now relatively peaceful and stable - but one where extreme weather threats are also being addressed.

Committed to Africa

Other Met Office projects in Africa have included:

New infrastructure and services for Sierra Leone
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) contract saw the Met Office help to rebuild Sierra Leone's war-shattered weather capabilities involving site selection, automatic weather system (AWS) design and procurement, and technical training.

Climate Science Research Partnership
The CSRP involves the Department for International Development (DFID) and Met Office Hadley Centre joining forces with various African organisations to improve understanding and prediction of the African climate to help alleviate poverty.

Supporting the global Regional Climate Outlook Forums initiative
Regional Climate Outlook Forums covering the Greater Horn of Africa (GHACOF), Southern Africa (SARCOF), West Africa (PRESAO) and Central Africa (PRESAC) see the Met Office bringing together diverse experts to improve climate outlook capability - and make best use of the outputs.

Support for the WMO's Severe Weather Forecasting Demonstration Project (SWFDP) in East Africa
The Met Office Global Guidance Unit is helping regional meteorological centres in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam make the most of Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) to improve severe weather forecasting in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

The Ada Consortium in Kenya
Funded by DFID, the Ada consortium includes the Met Office, Kenya Meteorological Service and NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) partners - working to improve the production and delivery of weather and climate information services, particularly seasonal climate information and its communication in Kenya's arid north-eastern counties.

Other Met Office capacity building projects have included installing TV weather studios and other facilities across Africa.

Outside of Africa, the Met Office installed a TV weather studio for the Dominica Meteorological Service.

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