Preparing for Disaster with Data

EarthzineDisasters, Earthly Updates, Original

Map of africa

Map of africaNew technologies and study methods allow scientists to make increasingly accurate predictions about regional weather patterns, but whether these data prove useful depends upon the ability of stakeholders to act on the information they receive.

Several articles in the SDI Africa Newsletter for August 2011 describe geo-spatial studies that could help Africa to prepare for natural disasters. Some describe successful use of data, while others mourn insufficient responses to early warnings.

An article on drought in the Horn of Africa by Miۈo Tataloviۈ reports how the region could have received better support for famines that troubled the area in 2011. As early as 12 months ago, forecasting systems indicated the likelihood of severe lack of rain in east Africa in the upcoming year. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) released an alert based on its forecast. There was some response and preparation as a result, but many experts at FEWS NET felt that greater trust in their data could have led to more widespread and effective preparation to help prevent the drought-caused famine now visible on worldwide news.

Scientists and humanitarian figures agree that while the early warning systems are running effectively, human reactions to them still need work. One hindrance is that while governments and international organizations want concrete information, data arrives with a margin of error. For future forecasts to provide a helpful warning system, involved parties will need to improve their communication and search for appropriate responses to warnings. Because warning systems have a margin of error, stakeholders will need to pursue actions that they will not regret even if the warning proves to have been unnecessary.

Another article within the SDI Newsletter provides an example of data already being disseminated to a population that depends upon the weather for their livelihood.

Riedner Mumbi and Polly Ghazi describe how Zambia is helping provide its farmers with information about the weather. The Zambia Meteorological Department has started RANET, a communication project designed to update farmers and herders on the weather so that they can make better informed decisions about their crops and stock. The project gathers data, such as from rain gauges across the country and also transmits information via texts, SMS messages, and radio broadcasts. The project connects to particularly rural areas by providing them with solar wind-up radio receivers to receive the broadcasts. Thus far, Zambia officials say they’ve been pleased with the results of the research and outreach program and are exploring other ways to continue contacting rural communities.

Whether the project is focusing on imminent changes in weather or trying to predict future patterns, as climate changes alter traditional weather patterns, a sustained flow of information could help people worldwide to adapt successfully