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What use is weather information after the fact?

Yesterday, I was talking with an Indian colleague who was involved in improving the Indian weather information system based on INSAT while working for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The trigger had been the devastating cyclone that hit Andhra Pradesh in 1977. This was also related to initiating my interest in disaster early warning because that cyclone was supposed to hit the East Coast of Sri Lanka, but veered away at the last minute. I remember tracking news of its journey while working at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. One year later the cyclone did not change track and we lost over 900 people on the East Coast.

In the course of the conversation, I said that we take accurate and timely weather information for granted. How wrong I was:

Before he leaves to meet with farmers, R M P Karunarathne, the irrigation engineer in Sri Lanka’s north central Pollonarauwa District, calls the national Meteorological Department in the capital, Colombo, to get the weather forecast. He told IRIN the information he gets from these informal calls based on personal relations has become ever more vital in the absence of an official forecasting system as weather patterns are changing.

“The details we get from official channels are a bare minimum – there is nothing much you can tell farmers from them,” said Karunarathne, who oversees the area’s irrigation dams, including the 20sqkm Parakarama Samudraya reservoir.

In January/February 2011, fields in the Pollonarauwa region were inundated after receiving a year’s worth of rain in one month, before a dry spell set in at the end of the year. By April 2012 it had worsened to the point where his team could not release any more water from the nearly dry reservoirs.

Even after the start of the monsoons in May, the Parakarama Samudraya was still only a quarter full by the end of July, said Karunarathne. Officials usually start releasing water when reservoirs are about 40 percent full.

“If we get better information we can at least advise farmers what to expect. Now, what we have is a system where the advice comes after the event – it is of no use then,” he said.

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