Benin Develops a Co-ordinated Early Warning System for Weather Related Hazards

All the various institutions that collect and disseminate weather and climate information in the West African country of Benin are now working together under one umbrella. These include the meteorological agencies, the national water department and the oceanographic institute, as well as organisations that release the information to the public, according to Arnaud Bruno Zannou, director general of water resources at the Ministry of Water.

In October 2010 Benin and its neighbouring counties including Ghana, Nigeria and Togo experienced severe flooding. In Benin, areas previously not considered vulnerable to flooding were inundated, leaving over 50 people dead and affecting more than two-thirds of the country – over 680,000 people in 51 out of 77 communes were impacted – the most extreme flooding since 1963. One of the weak points identified in the overwhelmed institutional disaster management framework was that of very poor communication between agencies.

The co-ordinated approach was achieved after the formulation and implementation of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the country’s role-players, developed with the support of the UNDP’s multi-country initiative, Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa (CIRDA). The programme supports projects to improve climate information and early warning systems in 11 of Africa’s least developed countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Malawi, Sao Tome, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

“Climate information and early warning systems can save lives, improve livelihoods and build resilience across Africa,” CIRDA programme manager Bonizella Biagini told a recent conference in Livingstone, Zambia.

Benin launched its new early warning system, which feeds into a National Disaster Management Agency, in January 2015.

Before it was launched, different weather agencies would gather data and sometimes give conflicting information to the public, Zannnou said, adding: “There were so many institutions that were releasing information when there was a threat of flooding, now only one national institution has this mandate.”

Four questions were used to direct the process:

  • Who (which actor) has a responsibility in the communication of alert messages to the community;
  • From where does/should each of these actors get the alert message;
  • To whom must each actor transmit the alert message; and
  • How many times must each actor transmit the alert message to the following actor?

The role that each of the various organizations involved plays – from data collection to dissemination of weather and climate information – has been clarified, so that when a potential emergency is anticipated, the National Disaster Management Agency is tasked with alerting local leaders and authorities in affected areas, as well as the media. Because their roles are clearly defined, role-players in each agency no longer have to refer to their superiors before issuing alerts, thus improving the speed of transmission.

The alert is in the form of a four-level colour-coded system; green, yellow, orange and red, that makes it easy for both disaster managers and the affected populations to understand the severity of the threat, and the actions required. Alerts are issued for situations classified as orange and red level.

In support of the system, Benin has the technical and institutional frameworks in place for climate modelling, with the Meteorological and Hydrological Departments and the Oceanographic Institute providing monitoring services, while the university runs the modelling and hydro-climatic risk assessment. The government has deployed 20 Automatic Weather Stations (AWS), 25 automatic hydrometrical stations (in river basins across the country), five automatic oceanographic stations and one oceanography buoy to improve its monitoring capabilities.

But there are still some hurdles to be overcome. Meteorological monitoring still needs to be built into the system, with localized ground-truthing to improve the accuracy of forecasts and ultimately to ensure more timely issuing of alerts. In addition, there is not yet any legal requirement in place for the media to broadcast early alerts, so airtime must still be budgeted for as an ongoing expense. The authorities are seeking to establish a sustainable relationship with the media in this regard, as well as looking to telecoms service providers to assist with dissemination of alerts via social media platforms.

Nevertheless, confidence in the country’s early weather warning system is on the rise, says Zannou.

“Thanks to the early warning system and a simulation of flood risks, we were able to identify and protect the most vulnerable villages. This year’s floods resulted in far less damage and no loss of life,” César Agbossaga, Director General of the National Agency for Civil Protection was reported as saying in May 2016.

Ouémé river in Cotonou, Benin. Photo: J B Dodane under CC BY-NC 2.0
Ouémé river in Cotonou, Benin. Photo: J B Dodane under CC BY-NC 2.0