Natural disasters can leave devastating impacts in their wake. For Tally Losha, a head teacher at Chikoje Primary School in Nsanje, the loss of his wife and child to last year’s floods could have been avoided with improved communication.
Following warnings from the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (DCCMS) of a heavy downpour and possible flooding, Losha, his wife and two children decided to stay indoors to be safe. But as it turned out, the rains were too heavy that their house was washed away. Hundreds of families, with 106 lives being lost, according to the Department of Disaster Management (Dodma).
“Most of the areas down here experience flooding every year and when we got the communication through radios that the country would experience heavy rains, we did not know how serious the rains would be. I think there is need to improve the communication channels as many others did not get the communication,” said Losha in an earlier interview.
This incident raises the question: Are citizens, particularly those in remote and hard to reach areas, getting enough and timely information to help them prevent disasters?
Ellina Kululanga, DCCMS head of public weather services, says whenever they come up with weather forecasts, they relay the information through intermediaries.
“We have a cluster system that incorporates the media, extension workers, district climate information centres and other stakeholders in weather and climate change. It is these agents that take our information to the local people,” she explains.
However, in cases where there is a possible disaster, Kululanga says they hand over to Department of Disaster Management (Dodma) to issue warnings.
Nonetheless, like DCCMS, Dodma also relies on the media, its district officers and stakeholders. Once the information is sent to districts, it is at the discretion of the officials on the ground to relay it to the intended audience.
Sheila Kang’ombe, Chiradzulu district agriculture development officer (Dado), says when they get the information, it is passed on to front line officers, who take it to locals, but there is no guarantee that it reaches every targeted individual.
“I like the mobile phone system whereby people get short message service (SMS) through their phones as it happens in Mulanje. This ensures the messages reach as many people as possible,” Kang’ombe says.
Similarly, Kululanga is uncertain that their communication reaches everyone.
“We fall short on this, but we are working on it,” she says.
Recently, Julius Ng’oma, national coordinator of Civil Society Network on Climate Change (Cisonecc), trashed the country’s weather and climate information communication as too general and technical.
His argument is corroborated by Martin Chibwana, librarian at Salima National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust, one of the organisations which DCCMS and Dodma rely on to disseminate information. He argues that most literature in libraries is in English and many rural people cannot read the language.
DCCMS has district weather and climate information centres, but it is only Salima, Nsanje, Mulanje and Karonga districts that are well stocked with all the required equipment, including satellite televised screens.
Dodma public relations officer Jeremiah Mphande looks to the future with optimism. While admitting shortfalls in ensuring information from district offices reaches everyone, he says they are promoting community-based early warning systems that targets individuals.
According to Mphande, Dodma is introducing a massive mobile phone communication system.
“All those connected to Airtel network will be getting the weather and climate information directly. Soon, we will be on other networks,” explains Mphande.
On Wednesday, Malawi joined the rest of the world in celebrating World Meteorological Day under the theme ‘Hotter. Drier. Wetter. Face the Future’, it is time to reflect on how to improve weather and climate communication for rural communities who are usually highly affected by effects of extreme weather conditions.
Dodma and DCCMS say this cannot be achieved by government alone.
“It requires more than just communication, but also consolidated efforts in dealing with factors contributing to climate change such as deforestation,” says Kululanga.
The two departments also ask the public to develop an interest in knowing daily, weekly or long-term weather predictions. n