Designing sustainable Early Warning Systems for Southern Africa

The Weather and Climate Information Services (WISER) Early Warnings for Southern Africa (EWSA) severe weather forecasting testbed – the first of its kind in Southern Africa – took place 29 January - 9 February 2024 and outputs have already been used to inform and design future early warning systems across the region as early as June 2024.

Our report on the testbed activities was recently completed and is available on request (Ageet et al. 2024). It explains the testbed in summary as follows.

“WISER EWSA Testbed 1 was a live severe weather forecasting event conducted in Southern Africa over a 2-week period. During the testbed, meteorologists, academics, economists, and user-engagement specialists worked to create real-time warnings of severe weather, deliver these to partnering user groups, and co-evaluate the effectiveness of those warnings.

Working with selected community observers in three urban communities of Kanyama, Boane, and Katlehong in Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa, respectively, to improve access to weather and climate early warning information to the less privileged and vulnerable people in these urban settings.

By the end of the testbed, approximately 300 nowcasts and synoptic forecasts, and warnings had been generated and sent to those community observers. The forecasts were sent at roughly two-hour intervals between 8am and 8pm using WhatsApp messaging. Unscheduled updates were sent out whenever necessary, as dictated by the changes in the weather.

Feedback was officially requested at several points in the day through WhatsApp, and this was then collated and analysed to assess the accuracy and impact of the forecasts. Additionally, objective verification was done daily by the forecasters and researchers to quantify the accuracy and skill of the forecasts, and discussions around the presentation and utility of the information took place in the community hub sessions. From formal and informal feedback, all these aspects of the testbed were noted to have positively evolved over time.

Overall, the exercise was a success, with routine nowcast information generated at the forecasting hubs sent out to the community daily, and the quality and presentation of that information improving over time, informed by feedback from users. Evaluations of the community hub by participants and community observers highlighted that 100% of the participants agreed that their ability to interpret weather information had increased. The quality of the information delivered to users was also improved over the two-week period, based on user feedback.

The testbed generated a number of outputs, including many new insights into the usefulness of nowcasting (0-6 hour warnings) to users in the urban communities and new Standard Operating Procedures to guide forecasters and design their training. The WISER EWSA project team is busy working through this material, to design the project’s second testbed and to inform future operational services. Analysis of the costs and benefits of nowcasting, conducted during Testbed 1, is being used to create business models for delivery.

There has been significant international interest in the testbed, as a vehicle for informing and designing sustainable Early Warning Systems, applicable right across Southern Africa. The project team has been active in sharing our learning with national and international agencies working in this space. The testbed report (Ageet et al. 2024) notes that

“Additional activities were carried out during the testbed, capitalising on the collection of experts gathered. This included an engagement day attended by the (representative of the) Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Green Economy and over 20 Zambian representatives from print media and radio and TV stations which provided an update on the testbed process. This was reported on Zambian news that same evening. 

During the engagement day webinars were also held, attended primarily by representatives from other National Meteorological and Hydrological Services from across Africa and beyond, which provided an opportunity to introduce the project and how the testbed had been run. 

Intermediary organisations participated in the engagement day and in two parallel discussions around the co-production of inclusive early warnings and the potential to scale this out. Zambia Meteorological Department/WISER EWSA also held lobbying meetings with PS/Minister of Green Economy and the private sector.”

Our aim in these engagement activities is to ensure that the economic and humanitarian value of severe weather forecasts and nowcasts is understood and appreciated by policymakers, and that support for the delivery of services remains a high strategic priority.