Harare -The good news that came out of the 24th Southern African Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF-24) held virtually in late August was that most countries in the region would receive normal to above normal rainfall in the 2020/21 summer season.
While this augurs well for regional food production considering that Southern Africa is emerging from a harsh drought, the onset of the rainy season also brings back a “flood” of unpleasant memories to Zimbabweans, Malawians and Mozambicans who were battered early last year by two devastating cyclones.
Tropical Cyclone Idai caused severe flooding in the three countries leading to the loss of hundreds of lives, displacement of thousands of people and destruction of an estimated 780 000 hectares of croplands, infrastructure and property.
Estimates said the recovery bill from that storm and Cyclone Kenneth was anywhere between US$2 billion and US$4 billion.
According to the SADC Climate Services Centre, a total of 13 tropical cyclones formed in the South-West Indian Ocean during the last rainy season and had some effect on weather patterns in Southern Africa, although only three made landfall.
While climate change plays a huge part in bringing about such weather phenomenon, the scale of the disaster, particularly the loss of human and animal life due to cyclones, can be reduced if sufficient investment is made in early detection and warning systems.
SADC Climate Services Centre expert Dr Arlindo Meque told SARCOF-24 that last season’s forecast was not as accurate as it could have been.
“In terms of climate prediction it was a half miss. We had a challenge in detecting signals in some parts of the region,” Dr Meque said.
The situation is compounded by limited capacity in the region to communicate climate information and services to different users and institutional challenges, including policy and legislative frameworks which do not support decision making in a changing climate.
In the outlook, experts warn that the region could experience more tropical cyclones in the 2020/2021 summer season.
“The season will almost certainly be more active than the last and this means the SADC region must activate its disaster preparedness plans because the likelihood of damage from tropical cyclones is high this season,” Dr Meque said.
At summit level, regional leaders at their last meeting in August acknowledged the magnitude of the problem posed by climate change.
“Summit received an assessment report on emerging security threats in the region, commended the secretariat for the detailed report, and directed the secretariat to prepare an action plan for its implementation, that will among others, prioritize measures to combat terrorism, violent attacks and cybercrime and to address adverse effects of climate change,” read part of their communiqué.
At SARCOF-24, SADC Secretariat representative Mapolao Rosemary Mokoena emphasised the urgent need to upgrade the region’s detection and early warning systems.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the quantity and quality of weather observation and forecasting, as well as atmospheric and climate monitoring.
“There has been significant reduction in meteorological measurements taken from aircrafts as well as surface-based weather observations. This is especially so in Africa where many stations are operated manually; very few observations are automatic,” she said.
“Advances in remote sensing technology and climate science are underpinning provision of timely weather and climate information that support decision making in various climate sensitive sectors such as water, transport, energy, food security and disaster risk reduction.
“In this regard, the Secretariat is putting lot of efforts to mobilise resources to enhance the capacity and capability of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in member states. As you are aware, it is currently implementing the Southern African Regional Climate Information Services for Disaster Resilience Development Project that aims to improve the core capacities to meet the needs of stakeholders for effective use of weather and climate services and community-focused real-time early warning systems. The project is ending this month (August).”
Further initiatives by SADC include participation in programmes under the Intra-African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Climate Services being funded by the European Union.
“Its overall objective is to foster sustainable development in the ACP region, and its specific objective is to strengthen the climate services value chain; from access to information, generation and provision of climate services, and engagement and capacity of users to ensure utilisation of these services.
“The action will strengthen the tools to bridge climate services providers, stakeholders and users mainly in the water-energy-food nexus in line with the WMO Global Framework for Climate Services at all levels. In addition, the programme will improve the quantity and quality of regional climate and early warning services offered by SADC Climate Services Centre whilst upgrading it as a single multifunctional WMO Regional Climate Centre for SADC,” Mokoena said.
SADC has also developed the Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan (2012-2027) which recognises that weather and climate information plays an important role in achievement of strategic goals.
A Disaster Preparedness and Response Strategy (2016-2030) requiring that SADC member states establish a simple and accessible early warning system in the bloc’s three official languages by the end of 2017 awaits implementation.
While SADC has instituted a number of programmes and agreements to mitigate disasters, observers have advocated for capacity building within member states in terms of climate information services, operationalisation of the SADC disaster risk management fund to enable swift responses to disasters within the region instead of largely relying on external support.