Early warning system could save lives and property

Innovation and climate emergencies

Arnold Munthali
North Rukulu River in Rumphi. The river floods almost every year leading to displacement of children and their families.
UNICEF Malawi/2021
01 March 2022

For most part of the year, North Rukuru river meanders downstream with spellbinding grace. Its waters gracefully swish downstream as it negotiates bends and rocks on its way to Lake Malawi. During the rainy season, however, the river wears a menacing face as it rages and breaks its banks, leaving wreckage behind.

Despite his age, 21-year-old Atusaye (not real name), from Paramount Chief Kyungu, has witnessed the river’s wrath for years. He complains that North Rukuru river floods have contributed to learners’ poor performance in class as schools usually close once it floods because school buildings and churches are used as evacuation centres. During such times some learners lose lives when they attempt to cross the flooded river.

Due to climate change, such floods, droughts, and cyclones, are occurring frequently, washing away fertile lands and killing livestock, thereby exacerbating poverty. Phidelis Suwedi, Technology for Development Specialist at UNICEF Malawi, says, floods normally affect the agriculture, health, and nutrition sectors and severely impacts the lives of children and women. “During floods children cannot access school, women and children fail to access healthcare services. In the aftermath of the floods, communities experience nutritional challenges when their crops and fertile lands get washed away,” Suwedi explains.

Unfortunately for Malawi, the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) has warned that floods and other natural disasters will continue to be a frequent occurrence.

While reversing the effects of climate change may be difficult, DCCMS, with support from UNICEF Malawi, has turned to technology to avert fatalities and reduce the loss of property in communities along the banks of Rukuru river in Karonga and Rumphi districts.

The DCCMS has come up with an early warning system (EWS) which produces and disseminates meteorological hazards early warning information to populations most likely to be affected.

This technology uses feeds historical data, weather forecast data, weather patterns and trends from the past into a system where computer algorithms computes it and predict the time and place floods are most likely to hit. Once the predictions are made, messages are disseminated to populations that will be affected to help them plan for evacuations.

“The government with support from UNICEF will build a flood model which can predict the extent to which floods will occur and which areas will be affected the most. This technology will be most effective when there is a good time difference between dissemination of early warning messages and the actual flood occurrence,” Suwedi explains.

Encouraging fellow youth in Karonga district to lobby for their participation in all development projects
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Kelvin Posiyano
Encouraging fellow youth in Karonga district to lobby for their participation in all development projects

 “The underlying assumption is that the early warning messages will help communities to relocate to upland areas before floods hits, thereby saving lives, livelihoods and property. This system will also help with risk management, disaster preparedness and emergency response preparedness,” adds Suwedi.

The early warning system has been tried and tested in Chikwawa and Nsanje district and in communities surrounding the catchment areas of Bua River in the Central Region.

“UNICEF is scaling up this technology because it works,” says Suwedi. “Floods affect everyone in Malawi, but children are affected disproportionally, hence the support UNCEF Malawi is providing to the government of Malawi to scale up the early warning system is critical,” he adds.

This system is a good example of a program responding to SDG 13, on climate action, urging nations to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy”. One of the targets under the goal is to “improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning”.