Uganda's poor weather warning system faulted for deaths, loss of property

Sunday December 29 2019

A flooded area in Bundibugyo, western Uganda.

A flooded area in Bundibugyo, western Uganda. The country is not investing enough in weather stations that would help provide information to avert loss of lives and destruction of property. PHOTO | COURTESY | UGANDA RED CROSS SOCIETY 

DICTA ASIIMWE
By DICTA ASIIMWE
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At a time when the lack of an early warning system can mean the difference between life and death, Uganda is not investing enough in weather stations that would help provide information to avert loss of lives and destruction of property.

According to Paul Isabirye, the director of networks and observations at the Uganda National Meteorological Authority, the country has only 16 weather stations. While these cover the country’s 16 ecological zones, allowing the meteorological authority to give a general picture of the weather conditions, their margins of errors are too big. Hence, the authenticity of warnings issued as a result of the weather information provided by the meteorological authority, can be compromised, he said. This can in turn lead to deaths and loss of property.

“To get an estimated seven per cent margin of error for precipitation, we would need at least 1,057 rain gauges. We have 300!” said Mr Isabirye.

Equally, more than half the weather stations are not functional, either due to lack of maintenance or theft, as per information from the meteorological authority.

In Butaleja for example, the district environment officer Lamula Were said that the community did not have enough time to escape the floods and save their property because the early warning systems are no longer functional.

Butaleja, which is one of the highest flood-prone districts in Uganda, had two warning systems. One stopped working six months ago due to lack of maintenance, bought by the Uganda Communications Commission and the Prime Minister’s office.

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Ms Were said that despite several reminders to these offices, nothing has been done to resolve the situation.

She said that in addition, the solar panels for the second flood warning system were stolen and no replacement has been made. This, Ms Were said saw the community fail to get the signal to move to higher ground until it was too late.

Although, Butaleja has not recorded any deaths this time around, the community lost property and food, forcing it to rely on aid.

Martin Owor the commissioner for relief, disaster preparedness and management said his office distributed food aid to Butaleja.

The lack of enough early warning systems has also resulted in the meteorology authority becoming a butt of weather prediction jokes among Ugandans. Just last week, when the meteorological authority announced that the rains will go on until mid-January, someone predicted a dry Christmas.

“Now that these astrologers have said this, the rains will now stop,” added another.

Mr Owor added that the failure by communities to take the weatherman’s warnings seriously explains the most recent deaths in Bundibugyo and Bududa districts.

The ongoing rains have resulted in the death of 36 people in Uganda. Seventeen of them died in floods and landslides in Bundibugyo district, which is found in the Rwenzori sub region. Another 14 died in landslides in Bududda district in the Elgon area, while rains over the weekend killed another five in Kampala.

Mr Owor says that in Bundibugyo and the Rwenzori region in general, as well as in Bududa and the larger Elgon region, people had been warned by the meteorological office but did not take these warnings seriously.

“Some wanted to first see, before agreeing to evacuate,” he said.