The fall and rise of water and weather monitoring services

Friday April 13 2018

Water level station in Nyarwondo in Nebbi

Water level station in Nyarwondo in Nebbi District.  

By Paul Tajuba

Weather and water monitoring services are two distinct areas that have been prioritized at some point and neglected at another in Uganda.
During the colonial time, meteorological (weather) and hydrological (water) services were priority areas and closely monitored in the country.
As such there were well established water monitoring stations in places like Butiaba on Lake Albert, Pajule in the upper Nile, Jinja, Bukoba and Kisumu on Lake Victoria.
“During the 1960s, rural water was decentralized in the districts, where the Department of Water was dealing with hydrology and valley tanks in support of agriculture,” Mr Patrick Kahangire, the presidential advisor on water says.
“However, with the collapse of the East African Community in the 1970s, all water related activities were brought together under the Department of Water,” he adds.
Between 1962-3, Uganda experienced heavy rains that filled up most lakes and rivers including River Nile which threatened Aswan Dam’s existence in Egypt.
With such challenges, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) came on board to support Uganda to start well-coordinated hydromet services in 1968.
The project received massive political support by the Presidents of the Great Lakes region, and 70 per cent of the hydromet networks then were established in Uganda.
But again Uganda went through the war 1979 resulting into most of the hydromet infrastructure being vandalised. External support too waned at the same time and data collection and analysis became inadequate. Modelling services were shifted to Nairobi, Kenya, which was the only station in the region that had computers for gauging.
Years later, the UNDP again stepped in and helped the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative which ended in 1992, when the World Bank, DANIDA and other Donors came in and offered more support.
Much as the issue of weather and water are taken for granted and to some extent not well understood by both the public and policy makers, the Ministry of Water and Environment with support from development partners have recently taken great strides in improving the situation. Uganda is one of the first countries in Africa to develop Country Action Plan for Water.
The country also elevated a meteorology department into an Authority in 2012.
More funding that the Authority attracts is handy amid the changing climate in Uganda to predict and possibly mitigate the risk of disasters associated with droughts, variations in groundwater and surface water levels, and incidences of diseases, high temperatures and wild fires.
In this context, capacity building of the hydromet services have been prioritised. Over the past four years, the Ministry of Water and Environment, with funding from UNDP -GEF has been implementing the “Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems (SCIEWS) project in Uganda.
The project has two outcomes summarized as modernization of the hydro meteorological monitoring and forecasting technology and building capacity for dissemination and utilisation of weather and hydrological information for production and disaster risk reduction.
Three main institutions that were targeted for capacity building under this project were UNMA, the Directorate of Water Resources Management (DWRM) and the Disaster Preparedness and Management in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).
Under the SCIEWS project, 25 automatic weather stations, 16 automatic message switching system and automatic water level stations were installed across the country. The project also provided smart phones to 28 districts in the Elgon, Karamoja, Lango and Teso sub-regions for reporting disaster related information.
Other 12 smart phones for synoptic stations across the country for reporting parallel weather information for comparison with those from the automatic weather stations; revamping of the upper air sounding services in Entebbe were also provided.
Training and orientation of senior officials and technical personnel from the implementing government institutions in country.
Indeed, capacity building support from the UNDP and other development partners has strengthened the institutional capacity of particularly the Ministry of Water and Environment, specifically the Directorate of Water Resources Management (DWRM) and the Uganda National Meteorological Authority to monitor the atmospheric as well as the land-based water resources for production and adaptation to climate change.
Eng Nebert Wobusobozi, the commissioner for water resources monitoring and assessment (DWRM) in the ministry of Water and Environment said, for developments such as hydropower dams, road constructions or even water supply, there must be data to determine water volumes to sustain such projects.
DWRM according to Eng Wobusobozi has developed a monitoring network representative of the country without necessarily going to every small water source.
The department monitors surface, lakes, rivers and groundwater premised on giving accurate data for development. Currently DWRM has 100 surface stations and 40 ground stations. The plan is however to increase number in the next five years.
“We think that in the next five years, we should have 250 water surface monitoring stations and 80 ground stations,” Eng Wobusobozi said.
He adds that running and maintaining optimal network, will roughly require Shs4bn annually.
So far, UNDP has provided Uganda with 16 telemetric stations which are digital and transmit data straight to office and another 40 offline stations which are upgradable.
“When you get information in real time, you can issue early warning say of floods in an area,” Eng Wobusobozi said.
“The UNDP systems can send alert messages. We are now conjuring the messages such that they do not only come to us [technical people at the ministry] but also to community leaders. With this network, we know how much water we have across the country and how it is fluctuating,” he adds.
In 2016, Uganda National Meteorological Authority (UNMA) received 25 automatic weather monitoring equipment that enables the Authority gather and dispatch faster information to avert the effects of natural disasters.
The gadgets worth $2m (Shs6.7b) were donated by UNDP under the Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems (SCIEWS). Dr Festus Luboyera, the Executive Director of UNMA, in an interview said SCIEWS provided urgently needed support to the Authority for the benefit of the country. “SCIEWS project has been helping us build capacity in general. When we needed somebody to go for short trainings, they have been responding immediately,” Mr Luboyera said.
“Automating our weather machines means that we are able to will deliver information to the public in a timely manner,” he added.
The SCIEWS project over the years has successfully used evidence-driven processes to strengthen the ability of individuals, organizations, and systems to perform core functions in a sustainable way and this is expected to progressively improve over time. In a nutshell, although there are still a few gaps in the performance of their services, the National Meteorological and Hydrological (NMHS) services are now being ably operated by national personnel who can fix and maintaining their own digital and manual stations with little support from expatriates and suppliers of the equipment and operating systems.
A clear outcome of the capacity building is the improved weather products that are being consumed by the public and the private sector. It is therefore not surprising that the Uganda National Meteorological Authority has been awarded the International Standards Organization (ISO) certification in recognition of its improved services to the aviation sector and the public at large.