Community based early warning system vital in a changing climate

Judging from the current and previous climate trends, Zimbabwe and the southern African region appears to be vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate related impacts. These may appear in the form of floods, cyclones, violent winds, droughts or storms, including heat waves or extreme cold events.

These various climate-related impacts and weather driven scenarios have undesirable effects not only on the people’s livelihoods but also on the environment and the economic prospects. The events outlined above are not the only ones that require the information services of early warning systems (EWS).
There are also community-based telling signs which serve to communicate the coming of drought or enough rains. These can be highlighted through studying the behaviour of birds, insects, plants, trees or the atmosphere.

With regard to EWS in Zimbabwe and the southern African region, that is where the comprehensive knowledge of the meteorological personnel, climate change experts and community-based enforcers become handy. This is in terms of disseminating the most needed and relevant weather and climate information, predictions, forecasting and meteorological data. In this regard, local communities need to have knowledge of the above, in order to sufficiently prepare themselves for the worst scenarios or better fortunes.

It is important for the fragile and volatile southern African region to empower its vulnerable communities with context specific vital EWS information, so that they become literate and competent in these life-saving matters.

The aim is for these communities, as important stakeholders, first and foremost, to be able to prepare themselves from the unpredictable and destructive natural disasters.

This also includes local farmers who are expected to use EWS to plan and prepare for each approaching farming seasons and enhance their livelihoods.

In Zimbabwe and the whole of southern African region, as communities approach the rainy season, farmers, meteorologists, climate change experts, policy makers and enforcers should have enough, relevant and useful telling signs, climate information and services that enhance their state of preparedness. Although local communities can benefit a lot from the early warning systems, they can also not afford the significance, power and relevance of the role of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) in these whole equation.

The value of knowledge in interpreting community telling signs, weather and climate phenomena promote and enhance resilience as well as strengthen their livelihoods. Although the local communities’ state of preparedness is very much premised in weather and climate scenarios, these should be integrated with crop situations, household scenarios, economic and environmental shocks, in order to realise resilience. Particular responses, whether short or long term, are overally designed to save lives, reduce vulnerabilities and achieve food security.

As communities and target situations study and observe the behaviours of plants, birds, animals, trees and insects, they would be harnessing comprehensive and sustainable networks of IKS, sometimes referred to as the community knowledge of knowing. People would be empowered to have sustainable knowledge of what is in store for them in terms of the approaching agricultural season. There are migratory birds which are strongly associated with abundant rains and they travel from as far as Europe to southern Africa, some are known as the Black and White-Storks or Mashuramurove/Amangabuzane in Vernacular. Some birds are indigenous to southern Africa like Haya (Cackoo) and if it cries continuously then rains will be imminent. Swallows/Nyenga-Nyenga/ Izinkonjane, the fast, swift and deceptive small birds are witnessed in large numbers before the onset of the rain season or during the rainy season and they are believed to feed as they fly.

There are also insects which are in the forecasting frame of things like Cicadas/Nyenze, which make lots of noise during the sweltering heat of October/November just before the onset of the rains in southern Africa. Ants are also believed to participate in the rain forecasting discourse, especially if there are seen building anthills just before the onset of the rainy season. This would signify the coming of lots of rains. There are also tree trends associated with the coming of rains or drought.

Mango tree bearing lots of Mangoes, would mean that there will be a drought and also if a Mushamba/Gan’acha/Lannea discolour tree bears lots of fruits, then that year will be a drought. Local communities can also be trained to study the moon as an early warning systems to signify whether there are rains or not. If the moon, especially at night, is circled by a white ring cloud then it would be signifying the coming of lots of rains.

In this regard, early warning systems should come early as the name suggests, and they are vital tools to disaster risk reductions. The indigenous knowledge systems in this regard, are localised, collaborative and transferrable, but as the local communities do so, they should always try also to be knowledgeable about climate change phenomena. Local communities have relied on commercial channels of weather predictions like radio, television and the print media for quite a long time and the results have not been that favourable. The reason behind this is that the local knowledge of knowing indicators or IKS have been the missing links hence they need to be integrated. It is also significant that, before local communities gather expertise in EWS, they have to make use of their knowledge of IKS as entry points.

Although weather forecasts have been educative for generations, they have not comprehensively managed to empower local communities in order for them to be in a position to come up with correct responses to the future climate scenarios. Despite scientific early warning systems’ inherent drawbacks, they remain fundamental information disseminators, since they are designed to combine both technology and IKS, which make them human friendly, people centred and effective. Early warning systems also contribute to the enhancement of effective communication networks across sectors, including their abilities to communicate risks, warnings, and desired responsive indicators.

One major undoing of EWS is their inability to reach out and penetrate vulnerable communities and target situations. These are communities who are always affected by extreme impacts of weather. As such communities in the peripheries are sadly locked out.

Even if local communities are to be conversant of weather or climate-related impacts, and they happen to raise warnings or alarm to the relevant authorities, responses and rescue efforts usually come late or never. Responsible authorities are not as prompt, expeditious and decisive as expected of them.

Early Warning Systems’ overall aim is to treat those targeted, as important stakeholders by giving them enough information to avoid disasters. Above all, information collected from early warning systems activities should strategically feed into weather phenomena, climate change adaptation as well as knowledge of physical features and local socio-cultural institutions, for strategic networking.

 Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: petrovmoyt@gmail.com

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