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Winds of change in Myanmar

The Met Office is playing a key role in a project funded by the World Bank that will help Myanmar modernise its observation and forecasting systems.

In Myanmar, around 40% of the population and one quarter of the land area is exposed to flood risk. Yet climate observation and forecasting is really just in its infancy across the country. Myanmar is 2.5 times the size of the UK, but it has just 60 or so weather stations in comparison to our 200 synoptic weather stations and around 4,000 rainfall stations.

The landscape in Myanmar is changing with the first civilian government for decades. New investment is coming into the country and the World Bank has set up a programme to develop infrastructure and capabilities.

The Ayeyarwady Integrated River Basin Management Plan is providing a loan to improve water resources management, modernise meteorological and hydrological services and improve navigation on the Ayeyarwady, the country’s most important waterway.

The Met Office’s International Development team is assisting with the second part of this vital project, working closely with Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology (DMH) to introduce better forecasting, which could have a hugely positive impact to people’s livelihoods and the economy.

The project is being led by Steven Wade, Head of Scientific Consultancy at the Met Office. “There’s a lot to do to improve all the observations and day to day operations,” explains Steven. “We’re involved in helping to develop the staff and skills training, advising on the equipment they need, helping the DMH improve flood forecasting and warning and drought advisory services for agriculture.”

The Met Office has committed to five months of support a year, for at least two years. To begin with, Steven’s role was more along the lines of management consultancy, for instance advising on how to deal with World Bank procedures. However, the role also requires scientific consultancy, and Steven has provided advice on how to measure river flows, and is helping the DMH evaluate tenders for new weather and river flow observation systems.

As Myanmar has little experience of a modernised weather observation system, part of Steven’s remit is to encourage the DMH to understand just what is possible. By developing a clear long term strategy, the DMH can grow at a steady pace and manage development as it happens.

Lifesaving progress

The project could make a huge difference to Myanmar. Millions of people rely on the Ayeyarwady River for trade and transport. Floods and droughts have a hugely detrimental effect on people’s livelihoods, particularly in the poorest rural communities. By enabling effective observation and forecasting, floods can be predicted and rural communities protected.

The project will also enable the DMH to promote ‘climate smart’ agriculture. With a better network and improved modelling tools, the DMH and Ministry of Agriculture can advise farmers on how to manage pests and diseases, and even help them decide on the best times to sow, irrigate and harvest. The average losses to flooding are estimated to be $2 billion a year, so timely advice could have a huge impact on the economy.

The project could save countless lives too. Twelve years ago, tropical cyclone Nargis tore through the country, causing catastrophic destruction and leaving at least 138,000 people dead. During the recent tropical cyclone Komen, better forecasting with the support of international partners led to the evacuation of 1.7 million people. There was a much lower loss of life, and just 39 fatalities directly related to Komen.

Global phenomena like cyclones need global solutions. To enhance the work on forecasting in Myanmar, Steven is also linking up with global and regional forecasting centres in India and China. “We’re looking at how we can work together to help Myanmar, while not duplicating work,” explains Steven.

So far Steven’s time in Myanmar has been extremely rewarding, partly due to the work and partly to the location itself, as he explains. “It’s a beautiful country at an interesting point of development.”