Weather Forecaster Helps Aid Workers Plan Ahead

Published on 27 September 2012

UNOPS Project Manager Brendan Kiernan works at rehabilitating an airstrip in Yida, South Sudan, one of many jobs that benefits from accurate weather forecasts. Copyright: UNOPS/ Kerekumba Juma

Knowing whether it will rain or shine can make a huge difference for aid workers who frequently have to make decisions based on the weather. After a successful pilot project in South Sudan, WFP is bringing in a professional meteorologist for the first time who will work with the agency’s emergency preparedness team.

ROME—WFP is bringing in the expertise of a professional weather forecaster for the first time to boost its preparedness planning and operational capacity. It follows a successful pilot project providing tailored weather predictions for the Yida area of South Sudan. WFP and its partners in Yida are feeding a recent large influx of 63,000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan.

The meteorologist will work within the Early Warning Team of WFP’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch, which developed and ran the successful pilot project.  It received strong support from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), a UK-based intergovernmental organization which uses super-computing and advanced methodology to produce high-resolution forecasting.

Industry-leading technology

“ECMWF experts have helped us every step of the way and have been incredibly generous in giving us free access to all their industry-leading technology and information,” said WFP Director of Emergencies David Kaatrud. “This subscription costs around $250,000 a year, but as in-kind assistance is of great value to us in our first initiative in this important area. Increasingly, anticipating extreme weather is critical to WFP’s emergency preparedness and emergency response. "

An ECMWF meteorologist, Thomas Petroliagis, helped set up the Yida weather forecasts and trained Early Warning Team members Alessandra Piccolo and Armin Wilhelm in continuing them.

On a visit to ECMWF, Alessandra worked with specialists in each type of extreme weather who are continuing to help WFP.  Now, using the nearest model grid points resembling Yida’s weather, all subscribing humanitarian organisations are sent forecasts for the next 3 to 4 days to help them plan their operations.

In Yida, WFP’s Geoffrey Pinnock said: “When heavy rains cut Yida off and we have to air drop critical food supplies, the forecasts reinforce our operational planning. We can take informed decisions on the ground on the risk of disruption and take steps to avoid damage to our life-saving food supplies.

Working with partners

A UN partner agency which also values the forecasts highly is UNOPS, which is building emergency infrastructure at Yida through WFP’s Logistics Cluster. “We’re rehabilitating the airstrip at Yida and the amount of water we have around is crucial to our work,” said Brendan Keirnan, Project Manager for UNOPS in South Sudan.

“The gravel won’t compact if there is more than 20% moisture but if there is no rain we have to bring in collected water by hand.  Just the other day, the WFP forecast predicted rain overnight, so we delayed watering the airstrip, saving us time and effort which we can use elsewhere,” he added.

UNHCR’s Field Safety Adviser in Yida, Paul Donohoe, agrees. “If we know really wet weather is coming we can take extra care so that we don’t risk losing any of our precious assets, like our vehicles, by getting bogged down,” he said.

“We can also step up our distributions of plastic sheeting and bring others forward so that vulnerable beneficiaries aren’t exposed to harsh conditions while walking to a distribution. As heavy rain can also affect air access, we can prioritize what to put on flights as a precaution against them being cancelled.”

WFP’s Early Warning Team is looking to extend the weather forecasting service to other emergency areas beyond Yida as it continues to work in partnership with the ECMWF.  Feedback from the field is appreciated and incorporated, as with any weather predictions, there is always a margin of inaccuracy.

WFP's South Sudan Country Director, Chris Nikoi, welcomes the move. "Yida will remain cut off by flooding until the end of the year, but we have to keep the food pipeline running and carry through our work on the ground. It's an extremely challenging operating environment - so having the technical and scientific knowledge for us to make the right decisions is a huge bonus."