Shifting from Response to Prevention

Torrential rains lashed West and Central African countries this rainy season, setting off flooding and causing considerable damage. On the evening of June 26th alone, nearly 200 millimeters of rain fell on the villages of Malem Hoddar and Malem Thierigne in eastern Senegal. The ensuing flash floods killed at least one person, displaced dozens of families and destroyed hundreds of homes and livestock. As usual, the regional Red Cross office in Dakar mobilized its vast network of donors and volunteers to respond to this and other events. But this season, the organization also did something fundamentally different in its operations.

Rather than wait for the flooding to happen, the International Federation issued an appeal for supplies weeks before any event occurred. It based the appeal on seasonal rainfall forecasts that showed a strong chance of above-average precipitation for the area for the upcoming rainy season.

“It’s a revolution,” says Pablo Suarez, Associate Program Director at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center. “Not only was this the first time a particular zone in West Africa used a particular forecast, it was the first time in the history of the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement that science-based information about something likely to happen was used to launch an emergency appeal,” he says.

A key player in this transformation was an IRI intern and Climate and Society masters student named Arame Tall. In early June, Tall went to work with the Disaster Management Unit of the Red Cross office for West and Central Africa (IFRC-WACZ), based in Dakar, to find ways to incorporate forecasts and other climate information into Red Cross decision making.

Halfway across the globe, Tall’s classmates, Sarah Abdelrahim and Lisette Braman, were on a similar mission in Panama, working with forecasters at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC).

The internships were the latest example of the ongoing, expanding partnership between the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the IRI.

Flooding: A recurring menace

In recent years, West and Central African countries have been devastated by severe, deadly floods. In 2007, they affected more than 800,000 people in the region. They destroyed homes and infrastructure, devastated crops and left thousands homeless.

That’s why a tool that could alert users about upcoming flood risks would be immensely helpful to both communities and response organizations such as the Red Cross.

Prior to starting her internship, Arame Tall attended the annual meeting of Previsions Saisonnieres en Afrique de l’Ouest (PRESAO) in Niamey, Niger. PRESAO issues climate forecasts for West Africa and is coordinated by the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD). As it happened, the forecast for the July-August-September rainy season predicted high probabilities of wet and very wet conditions for the region.

Tall and her new colleagues at IFRC-WACZ immediately saw the utility in such a forecast and they used it as the basis to draft a donor appeal for buying and stockpiling relief supplies for 47,500 people in case floods did occur.

As it turns out, floods have already hit the region numerous times this rainy season, resulting in at least seven deaths and the displacements of hundreds of families.

“The appeal constitutes a major achievement and constitutes a positive instance of climate information duly transmitted and acted on,” Tall writes in her final report to the IRI and IFRC. “It also proves that finding donors to fund preparation may not be as difficult as we think, and debunks the idea that the donor community is insensitive to preparation efforts.”

During her internship in Dakar, Tall helped the IFRC-WACZ leadership develop a list of climate products that, if made readily available, could potentially increase disaster preparedness. These include the PRESAO forecasts, the IRI 6-day rain anomalies forecast, daily ACMAD bulletins and others. She then assisted the organization to formalize relations with both ACMAD and other forecasting agencies in the region.

“In just two months, the IFRC-WCAZ went from using no climate information to obtaining a whole suite of climate products systematically transmitted by its new regional climate partners,” says Tall, who is currently working as a consultant to the Red Cross Climate Centre.

Bolstering Disaster Preparedness in Central America

In terms of land area, Central America makes up a small portion of the Latin American and Caribbean region. But more than a third of emergency appeals to the Red Cross’s Pan-American Disaster Response Unit (PADRU) come from Central America and Mexico. Between 2001 and 2007, PADRU responded to more than 100 disasters, half of which were floods. Floods occur with significantly less forewarning than hurricanes, which are the region’s other major weather threat and are well-tracked. Advanced warning of heavy rainfall and flooding could provide the opportunity to evacuate communities, pre-position supplies, mobilize volunteers and save lives. As of now, this kind of monitoring isn’t widely practiced in the region.

Lisette Braman and Sarah Abdelrahim went to Panama hoping to help change the situation. They spent the summer assessing disaster-response operations in the region. Their goals were not only to review the climate and weather monitoring and forecasting tools made available by CATHALAC and other agencies, but also to understand the structure and decision-making process of the Red Cross so that these tools could be tailored to the organization’s specific needs.

“Hurricanes seem to be the only phenomena which are tracked before causing destruction,” writes Abdelrahim, who is now a program manager at NOAA. “Operations with respect to flooding and landslides are for the most part concentrated in the response and recovery phase.” The two interns found that forecasts are rarely used to help decision makers plan for potential flooding or landslides.

They concluded that while the tools would give some benefit to the regionally-focused PADRU, they would be even more effective if they were designed for the individual national societies, where decisions regarding disaster preparedness and response are made. This was an important finding, because it contrasts with the situation that Arame Tall faced in West Africa, where decisions and action plans tend to come from the regional offices rather than the individual societies.

“This is why it is so important for the IRI to have expertise and good collaborators in the place in which we work,” says Walter Baethgen, who heads the IRI’s regional program for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The institutional arrangements and their needs for climate information are quite different among the regions where we work, and even very different among countries within the same region.”

Abdelrahim and Braman provided recommendations (see box) and an action plan for how the IRI and CATHALAC could tailor climate tools to better satisfy the Red Cross’s needs, as well as how the Red Cross might best adopt these tools and benefit from their use. The students also worked with CATHALAC on a work plan to provide the Red Cross with high-resolution 48-hour flood forecasts and the ability to anticipate the timing and location of landslides using NASA satellite information.

Climate/Weather Tool Checklist for Disaster Prevention Ideally, a staff member would know within seconds of reading a map or advisory whether the information contained therein is cause for concern. Specific recommendations include:

“A potential next step would be to overlay spatial displays of forecasts with demographic information related to vulnerability and community features, such as hospitals and roads,” writes Braman, who is now working as a technical advisor to the Red Cross Climate Centre.

“These three interns basically parachuted into unfamiliar territory and had to navigate through complex network of organizations, with very limited resources and guidance,” says Suarez. “What they were able to accomplish in just a little over two months is astounding. It’s remarkable how little climate information was being used before they arrived, and how that has changed because of their efforts.”

Inspired by the successes of Tall, Braman and Abdelrahim, the IRI, IFRC and Columbia University are currently trying to find ways to continue to incorporate a humanitarian dimension of student work into the Climate and Society masters program.