By Arnaud Zannou
In Benin, 800,000 people now have access to early weather warnings, thanks to the establishment of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) supported through the UNDP Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Project.
The country issued early warnings for flooding through a multi-agency committee in 2014 and 2015, using manual monitoring of river levels, data processing and information analysis. The country has also adopted a Standard Operating Procedure for the diffusion of alerts through the National Disaster Management Agency.
Why a SOP is Important
In 2010, Benin faced one of the worst floods in its history. Over 680,000 people were affected and 46 people lost their lives. Areas that were not considered flood prone were devastated with entire villages being wiped out. Damages totaled up to US$260 million.
The crisis was a reality check. The existing crisis communication system was insufficient to reach a large portion of the population. So the Government of Benin began the important task of understanding the communications chain, identifying roles and responsibilities, and defining how early alert messages would be shared.
Making the SOP
The Government of Benin initiated a study to create the SOP. The communications assessment included a review of past efforts, a state of the art, inter-agency brainstorming to create the SOP, SWOT analysis, analysis of the existing communications channels and flows, and finally the proposal of a new communications flow.
In all, the process including meetings with around 20 partner institutions and consultations with 25 districts.
The main goals of the study were to:
- Identify and analyze the content of all regulations and legislation on the dissemination of alerts related to disasters in Benin. This basic desk study gave an overall picture of how information is shared and responsibilities.
- Identify and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of existing protocols for early warning dissemination in African countries.
- Propose a standardized system of communication and warning dissemination. This communication system specifies roles and responsibilities and expected actions from various actors.
- Identify the legal requirements for the creation of the SOP.
- Assess specific communications needs of each stakeholder.
Issuing Alert Messages
While the modalities will vary based on institutional mandates, capabilities, legal frameworks, information flows, available information, and end-user needs and behaviors, most experts in disaster management agree that keeping it simple is key.
In the case of Benin, this begins with monitoring by the Meteorological Department, the Hydrological Department and the Oceanographic Institute. Modelling and hydro-climatic risks are driven through the university. The four bodies work in concert to issue warnings passed on through the Disaster Management Agency.
A color-coded system makes it easy for both disaster managers and potentially affected populations to understand the severity and required actions associated with fast-acting storms. Green indicates an all clear, yellow alerts by forecasters indicate vigilance is required by the various agencies, orange alerts are issued to disaster managers to indicate a fast-acting storm or situation that may require immediate action, red alerts means it’s go time. Crisis managers in the SOP are alerted as are all stakeholders.
Keys to Success
Reliable, accurate and timely information are essential in issuing alerts and fostering a value proposition for climate information and early alerts being produced by National HydroMeteorological Services. Benin has the technical and institutional frameworks in place for climate modelling, and is working to improve hydrological and meteorological monitoring through the UNDP-supported Climate Information and Early Warning Systems Project. This includes the procurement and deployment of 20 Automatic Weather Stations (AWS), 25 automatic hydrometrical stations (deployed in river basins across the country), five automatic oceanographic stations, and one oceanographic buoy.
The legal framework in Benin ensures each actor knows his or her responsibility and knows and respects the roles of the other actors involved. Because these roles are clearly defined, actors need not refer to superiors when issuing alerts. With multiple agencies involved, messages carry greater weight and credibility, working to create that value proposition lacking for many African NHMS.
This doesn’t work overnight. Benin still needs to integrate meteorological monitoring into their early alert system. This type of localized ground truth will improve the fidelity of forecasts and ensure better alerting systems and overall weather and climate monitoring.
The country has the legal framework required to monetize weather and climate data, but has had little success to date in successfully packaging relevant information for use by the private sector.
With no legal framework in place with media to require broadcasters issue early alerts, Benin needs to pay for air time, and is seeking methods to support sustainability for the relationship with media, a key actor in the dissemination of early alerts. Engagement with telecommunications providers is also in the works to disseminate alerts via SMS to cell phones in affected areas, as are alerts through social media.