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Opinion & Analysis

How predictive weather data can save lives

Motorists and pedestrians wade through a flooded section of the road leading to Bombolulu Estate in Mombasa. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Motorists and pedestrians wade through a flooded section of the road leading to Bombolulu Estate in Mombasa. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

More than 1,000 people perished last week in weather-related floods caused by a deluge of untold proportions in Sierra Leone.

It is particularly sad considering that in this day of predictive data analytics, this should never have happened.

Although Africa has the least data gathering land-based stations in the world and lacks the analytic capacity to make sense of available data, the global weather patterns behaves in a similar manner so much that some information can be gathered from established nations and applied here.

For example, heavy rainfall in West Africa’s rainforest in most cases gives rise to hurricanes in the US.

The US therefore keenly monitors the sources of these hurricanes and develops mitigation measures.

There is irrefutable evidence that the cause of last week’s flooding in Sierra Leone was man made.

The country’s own statistical reports show that “between 1990 and 2000, Sierra Leone lost an average of 19,300 hectares of forest per year.” This translated to an average of .63 per cent of forest loss per year.

By 2005, the country was losing forest cover at an average rate of 7.5 per cent per year. In total, the country lost more than 290,000 hectares of forest or close to 10 percent of total forest cover.

By 2015, Food and Agriculture Organisation data showed that the forest cover had dropped to 42 per cent. Although slightly higher than the global average of 31 per cent, the country is losing forest cover faster than its peers in the region.

Like many other African countries, spatial planning is either non-existent or some officials have neglected their duties. Housing developments in its capital Freetown hang precariously on steep hills without adequate drainage system.

In essence, it is man who set the stage for such a catastrophe. Now that the tragedy has happened, the entire continent must learn from the disaster. It is hopeless to continue seeking help for things that we can prevent from happening.

In the city of Nairobi, you can count hundreds of buildings built on seasonal rivers with clogged drainage systems. Some of the disadvantaged neighbourhoods are built on riverbanks. It requires just slightly heavier rainfall to wash these people away.

When some residential blocks of flats collapsed from simply soaking rainwater, many other blocks were earmarked as dangerous for human habitation. Today, condemned buildings still stand with many tenants in them.

We know this is disaster in the waiting but we have chosen to bury our heads in the sand simply because the owners of these structures are powerful. But when innocent citizens become victims of greed, you can be certain that we shall call it an accident.

Africa must begin to take care of her people. As such, the African Union (AU) should seek to develop capacities in data gathering and analytics to build better predictive models of weather patterns across the continent.

The AU must invest in rapid response teams to handle emerging crises like disease or climate related disasters.

It is awkward that African countries must always appeal for help from outside the continent.

African Union’s Vision 2063 will never be realised if the Union can’t take a more proactive role especially in assisting smaller countries like Sierra Leone overcome challenges like the flooding they are experiencing now.

After the President’s call for aid, the next thing that should happen is to fire those responsible for key institutions that had some role to play such as the forest, meteorological, planning and information departments.

Without such actions, we may never learn to take responsibility.

It is possible that some people knew of the impending floods but ignored to inform others and prepare for it.

Yet again, our peculiar ways of dismissing predictability may be our downfall. Rumour in major African cities can spread like wild fire, but news of an impending disaster never travels.

Overall, we never seem to understand the consequences of our actions or inaction.

There are sufficient sources of data to be able to predict weather patterns and inform citizens to take precautions. Our safety in the days to come depends on our collective action.

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