31 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Is Zim Ready for Climate Disasters?

WEATHER and climate change have become topical in most countries and Zimbabwe is no exception.

Over the past few years we have seen many parts of the country experiencing extreme events.

Our winters have become so severe to the extent that many people's horticultural produce which is a source of livelihoods has on many occasions been completely wiped out.

We have had situations where whole banana plantations, tomatoes and other vegetables are destroyed overnight by frost.

So dire was the situation in certain areas that even chickens and in worse instances cattle also became victims.

While frost has been occurring over the past years, it is its severity, frequency and at times prolonged occurrence which are now a source of concern.

We have read reports of farmers collapsing in shock after their much-awaited entire tobacco plant was reduced to nothing by hail in a just a couple of minutes.

Cases of people and cars being washed away by (traditionally small) flooded rivers and property being damaged by flash flooding even in Harare's CBD and other smaller towns are common nowadays.

Incidents of bridges being swept away by floods (such as during Cyclone Eline in 2000) and other capital infrastructure being affected by other weather phenomena in the recent past are still vivid in our minds. 2011 also had some of the record rainfalls with Wedza recording as much as 147mm of rain in 24 hours (almost half of Beitbridge's annual total).

Just recently, Nyanga had 164mm Chipinge recorded over 140mm and in contrast most parts of Chivi had not had any meaningful rains as of early January of 2013.

While 2011 saw the Met Office having some of the record low temperature it is interesting to note that Buffalo Range recorded the highest temperature to date in Zimbabwe (45 degrees Celsius), in one of the few heat waves we have had in the recent past within a few months after the extreme winter. Whilst we do not have as much air-traffic volume as other airports, there were some minor delays in the landing or taking off of aircraft due to extreme weather events in the recent past, locally.

A recent tour of Mt Darwin and Chivi in a bid to verify some scientific facts on the nature of violent storms which caused massive destruction to property, caused serious injury to persons and are also reported to have caused some loss of lives were eye-opening. Recent destructions in such areas as Umzingwani, Manyene (Chivhu) and other areas by violent storms are also well documented.

It is disturbing to see the whole community's investment in their children's future like in schools, usually done through contributions of communities' hard-earned monies over many years being 'reduced to rubble in five minutes as roofs are blown off by the violent storms heralding the fall of the school.

The increased crop failure due to the erratic nature of our rains, shortening of the rainy season, reduction in rainy days and the increased frequency of droughts and floods occurrence is also well documented. Unreliability of the rainy season has left both the abstract atmospheric scientific community and indigenous knowledge systems/traditional indicators equally challenged when it comes to producing accurate long-range forecasts.

The poor distribution of our rainfall (spatially and temporally) has been one of the major challenges to rainfed agriculture whose role in the economy and livelihoods cannot be overemphasised. In view of all the background information given above, the grand question that remains is "How prepared are we as a nation to deal with all these issues? Do we know the issues we have to be dealing with and prepare ourselves for as a nation? How confident are we in our preparedness. How are we supposed to prepare for what in terms of Climate Change? Do the most vulnerable communities know the available adaptation options? "

Record Falls

By any standard, January of 2013 has been unusually wet and will go in the records as one of the wettest Januaries ever since the recording of rainfall in Zimbabwe more than a century ago! The period has seen most of the Meteorological stations breaking the record-falls ever received in 24 hours. Nyanga received 164mm in 24 hours (which is 16cm of rain and three times the severe rainfall threshold of 50mm) thus breaking the ever-recorded rainfall record of 1910. Rusape, Mutare and the usually dry Beitbridge broke their January and all-time 24-hour records as well.

In just three days, most stations in Manicaland, Masvingo and Matabeleland South had recorded almost half of their expected seasonal total rainfalls. Many other stations dotted around the country also received record high rainfalls.

One striking thing about this wet spell is its prolonged lifespan which naturally culminates into serious nutrient-leaching, lightning strikes as well as loss of life and property due to flooding and drowning.

Whilst the nation was "early-warned" of the impending falls which could trigger flooding and related disasters, Zimbabwe has unfortunately lost tens of souls in some avoidable instances mainly through drowning as people try to cross flooded rivers.

It seems either people do not take these warnings seriously or simply do not know what to do in face of such extremes.

Others just do not value life including their subjects especially in commuter omnibuses resulting in these recently common but unfortunate incidences. We have read of incidences where some departments which are key in the national operations spent days "trapped" outside town thus spending almost half a week more in what was initially meant to be a day trip.

Does this say anything about our disaster preparedness and national capacity to respond to extreme weather and the adverse effects of climate change?

Could this be avoided or was there no way of adapting to this wet spell? While I fully sympathise with them and the bereaved families, a few people would ask if it was the wisest of decisions to bus almost 100 mourners to such a faraway place with the nature of available infrastructure, prevailing and predicted weather conditions.

Did the disaster managers do their best under the circumstances? Could the travellers have prepared for the trip any better than they did? I have seen people in the Northern Hemisphere stocking foodstuffs in preparation for severe storms or adverse weather forecast to strike a couple of days later as they anticipate some ripple effects in their daily chores.

In contrast, locally, media reports that some travellers had not carried enough medication, sanitary wear, and clothing among other basic essentials to cover for an extra day. How and why they had to spend all these days "stuck" in that village (before they got helped out) is a question which may need another separate piece of analysis but basically raise some questions on our preparedness to deal with weather and climate-induced disasters especially if they are widespread.

Indeed, the extent of the rains and subsequent flooding is quite unusual in comparison to recent past records or trends.

What is, however, more critical to understand is that the atmosphere is warming and climate is changing, with numerous studies insinuating on high likelihood of increased extreme events especially the intensity of storms and generally a shift in the rainfall patterns from the past situations. It is therefore imperative for all sectors of the economy, Government, private sector and communities to put their thoughts and resources together in raising awareness and increasing everyone's preparedness to deal with these unusual situations which are most likely going to become more frequent in the future.

New paradigm

Whilst January climatologically has generally less rainfall than February, 2013 seem to have brought a completely new paradigm. Whilst 2012 ended on a low note with some parts of Zimbabwe having received relatively little rains as was predicted in the 2012-2013 seasonal forecast, the story changed completely in 2013. On January 4 2013, the designated authority on meteorology in Zimbabwe - the Met Office - updated its seasonal forecast (following the SARCOF 17 regional seasonal forecast update meeting hosted by Zambia in December). The updated forecast went for a more promising last half of the season (JFM) where the whole country is expected to receive normal to above normal cumulative rainfall totals. This was a slight shift from an initially gloomy picture for parts of the Midlands,

Masvingo and parts of the Mat South which in the August seasonal forecast was expected to receive below normal rains in the last half of the season.

A few days after the seasonal forecast update, in line with its mandate of "minimising risk through science", the Meteorological Services Department (Met Office) predicted heavy rainfall and went further to quickly issue several heavy rainfall warnings on various media channels among them the radio, TV, newspapers, the web and social media sites. Urbanites did really got overwhelmed with early-warning information although it's not very clear whether that information got to the vulnerable members of the community.

Related climate applications/impacts or implications as well as recommendations were also being issued with the forecast which the users can verify its accuracy.

That being said, one of the key challenges being presented by climate change is the rapid development in the atmospheric systems, which coupled with relatively reduced level of scientific understanding of the atmospheric processed is making forecasting much more difficult. This also implies that nations are better off prepared for both extremes such as drought and flooding in the case of Zimbabwe.

Members of the public must also take heed of the advisories issued and prepare accordingly even on short notices to save life and property. The seasonal climate outlook forecast must guide our national actions and help in strategic planning and programing while the weekly and daily weather update and forecasts must aid tactical decision-making by the insurance industry, government departments, private sector, NGOs, communities and the policy-makers alike.

Elisha N. Moyo is a Senior Meteorologist in the Met Services Department of Zimbabwe's Climate Application Branch.

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