El Nino: Let’s not be caught off guard

Last week, the government announced that heavy rains are expected to hit the country soon. Prof Ephraim Kamuntu, the Minister of Water and Environment, cautioned Ugandans to prepare for El Nino effects such as floods and landslides between mid-September and December.

The minister particularly singled out Bududa, Butaleja, Rwenzori and Teso sub-region as areas that will be most affected given their geographical and climatic settings, warning that the season will be characterised by heavy floods, landslides, dusty winds and lightning. He also directed that human activity on steep slopes be limited or completely stopped and residents living in vulnerable areas move to safer places.

This is a significant announcement given the devastating effects of heavy rainfall the country faces. In Kampala, for instance, the rainy season is a nightmare for residents: schools and businesses are often shut off and lives lost. In areas such as Kasese, flooding has been a constant predicament every rainy season. Several parts of the country are also affected.

Therefore, beyond the minister’s announcement, it is important to have in place practical national plans to manage risks. For many years now, weather reports and risk warnings have become a ritual. The Department of Meteorology often cautions the country about above normal rainfall in some parts of the country characterised by floods. Indeed, many parts of Uganda experience heavy flooding annually, cutting off roads, destroying homes, gardens as well as putting lives at risk.

With instructive reports from meteorologists and early warning systems in place, the relevant ministries and departments should devise proper disaster response strategies. This is even more significant now because meteorologists predict that the 2015-2016 El Nino event is the strongest since 1997-1998 and possibly among the four strongest since 1950.

Last week, the World Meteorological Organisation — the UN’s authoritative voice on weather and ocean-atmosphere interaction — noted: “A mature and strong El Nino is now present in the tropical Pacific Ocean and is likely to strengthen further… The peak strength of this El Nino, expected sometime during October 2015 to January 2016 its impact is already evident in some regions and will be more apparent for at least the next 4-8 months.”

As Maxx Dilley, the director of WMO’s Climate Prediction and Adaptation Division said, there is much more information available compared to the last major El Nino event in 1997-1998. This means with proper planning, governments can incorporate climate forecasts into policy decisions, thus reducing risks to key areas such as agriculture – a key sector for a country’s wellbeing and sustainable development.

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