São Tomé and Príncipe: Early warning systems protect farmers and fishermen

27 Aug 2014

imageIncreased fog, wind, and storms are particularly dangerous for São Tomé and Príncipe fishermen, who traditionally fish in small, open sail boats and navigate by sight. Photo: UNDP in Sao Tome

In some places, climate change may appear in subtle ways. Not so in São Tomé and Príncipe, where climate change brings severe and dangerous weather conditions. Storm surges, torrential rains, flash floods, and increasing fog and wind have created hazardous conditions for fishermen and farmers alike.

Africa’s second-smallest country, São Tomé and Príncipe lies about 250 km off the western coast of Gabon. Its 187,500 inhabitants rely primarily on agriculture.

Heavy rains and landslides have created treacherous conditions for farmers and people living in rural areas along the coast. Increasingly dense fog, strong winds and storms have destroyed fishing vessels, and led to a mortality rate among fishermen at sea that is three times higher (PDF) than the world average.

Part of what makes these conditions so dangerous is the fact that they can come without warning.

“I was inside my house when the water came rushing in. I had 400 pounds of coffee drying and a bit of money, but there was no way of salvaging anything. I just grabbed my wife and started swimming,” says a fisherman from the village of Santa Catarina.

After independence from Portugal in 1975, São Tomé lost many of its trained meteorological staff, leaving few people who could gather and interpret weather information. By 2012, there were only seven functioning automated weather stations in the country. Some had been vandalized and others lacked a direct link for data transmission, meaning that data had to be retrieved manually from each station. Without reliable and timely weather forecasts, people on the coast or in fishing boats can be caught off guard when bad weather strikes.

An ongoing UNDP project, in partnership with the Ministry of Public Works and the National Meteorological Institute, and with financing from the Least Developed Countries Fund, aims to help develop more reliable early warning systems to monitor these increasingly severe hydro-meteorological conditions (i.e. water-based weather patterns, such as rainfall, floods and storms).

Starting with five pilot sites in the most vulnerable coastal communities, the project will provide training, equipment, and technical assistance to strengthen the country’s early warning capabilities. This includes training staff to repair and maintain equipment, interpret data, and install or overhaul more than 50 monitoring stations.

“This project is a big boost to our institution", says Joao Vicente, Director of the National Institution of Meteorology. "From now on we will be able to capture hydro-meteorological data, analyze it and issue early warnings that will save lives and enable us to give a robust response to any natural disaster.”

The goal is to be able to disseminate tailored weather and climate bulletins, including color-coded alerts, advisories for farmers, watches and warnings for floods, drought, and severe weather. For example, community radio stations and radio equipment for fishermen will help them get real-time weather warnings while at sea.

“I remember a day when the weather was bad and my wife had insisted that I stay home. I called the weather forecast number and got confirmation of an impending storm. Thank God, I was not very far and was able to sail back home quickly," says a fisherman from the village of Pantufo, on the northern coast of the island.

In addition, this information can eventually be combined with socioeconomic and environmental data to improve São Tomé’s decision-making processes and increase the resilience of local farming and fishing communities to climate-related shocks. In the coming years, UNDP will work with the government of São Tomé to integrate this weather and climate information into national policies, agricultural land-use planning and disaster preparedness.