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Once bitten, twice shy

Written by  Anastazio Mpumulo

Nkhotakota, September 21: The country had a rude awakening over the weekend of 8-9 June 2014 when it was learnt that fishermen had gone missing in Lake Malawi in Nkhata Bay following stormy Mwera winds that had been blowing over the lake. 

The stormy winds mainly affected Sanga, Chintheche, Kande, Chifira and Kapeska areas. It later on turned out that death toll of fishermen reached 12.

Nkhata Bay Police found eight canoes at Sanga whose owners were missing and they suspected that there could be other fishermen who were missing.

It was sad to see relations of people whose canoes were found without people collapsing in shock while others were mourning following the disaster.

“That incident greatly touched government especially Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services. We were wondering as to what was happening considering that we provide weather forecasts to the general public for them to properly plan their undertakings.

“As such, we did not know as to what went wrong to the general public not to utilise the weather forecasts as was the case in Nkhata Bay because we had earlier on warned the general public to anticipate Mwera winds over the lake,” says Head of Climate Change and Research Services Fred Kossamu.

Following the incident, Kossamu says the department has organised focus group discussions in all lake shore districts with the aim of getting feedback from the end users of weather reports.

“The incident has prompted us to find out if the people really get the early warning which we provide. We want to know if the weather reports we provide are utilized, if the media we use is accessible by all and other things which our end users can provide,” said Kossamu when he visited Nkhotakota to organise the focus group discussions.

The focus group discussions involved area civil protection committees (ACPCs) and village civil protection committees (VCPCs) which are structures at traditional authority and group village head levels respectively responsible for disaster-related issues.

In Nkhotakota, the ACPCs and VCPCs in the areas of Senior Chief Mwadzama and Malengachanzi as well as T/A Mphonde were reached.

Meeting with Mphonde ACPC, Wiiliam Malala said the general public members including fishermen get the weather reports on radio although some community members do not get the reports because they do not have radio.

“However, some fishermen feel that even if they hear the early warning of impending Mwera winds, there is nothing they can do apart from fishing since it is the source of their livelihood,” said Malala.

On his part, Osman Kamugwira said some fishermen risk their lives by going for fishing even after hearing the early warning of impending stormy Mwera winds.

“They argue that due to the warning only few fishermen go for fishing, meaning that the few who risk their lives are rewarded by colossal profits triggered by shortage of fish on the market since only few fishermen go for fishing,” he said.

Grace Kacheche argued that some fishermen feel that the early warning cannot restrain them from fishing because they feel that they have resounding experience on the lake after plying for a long period and they are confident that if hit by the wind they will find means of dealing with it.

Regarding the weather reports’ content, the members in all the visited ACPCs and VCPCs said the reports touch important aspects like sunrise and sunset, wind, temperature and rainfall but the information is too generalised.

Principal Meteorologist (Observation and Prediction) Charles Vanya said through the focus group discussions, the department has learnt that it needs to be providing services tailored to meet the user needs because many people are complaining of generalised forecasts.

“The prominent issue that is coming out is that of Mwera wind. When announcing on the radio, we don’t specify as to when the wind will start blowing in each of the lake shore districts. Normally, we just generalise that in the lake shore areas they should expect Mwera winds on a particular day yet that day usually is for Mangochi.

“The Mwera winds may take two more days to start blowing in Nkhotakota after beginning to blow in Mangochi. Thus, if fishermen in Nkhotakota realise that the wind has not started blowing on the date announced on the radio, they become complacent only to be caught unawares two days after the date that was announced on the radio,” said Vanya.

The principal meteorologist said due to the delay emanating from the time lags, some fishermen in districts like Nkhotakota, Nkhata Bay, Karonga and even Salima disregard the early warnings.

“We have noted that this is a strong case that needs to be addressed so that each district should be given specific days to avoid such awkward situations which may provide room for succumbing to disaster like the one which took place in Nkhata Bay,” says the principal meteorologist.   

During the focus groups, the department has left no stone unturned as it has also solicited indigenous knowledge which communities use as early warning of specific weather conditions.

At Mphonde ACPC, Kamugwira said men and boys suffer from ntchofu (abdominal pains) when the area is about to experience Mwera wind and when the wind starts blowing, the abdominal pain ceases. The ACPC members were all in agreement to what Kamugwira said. 

Mtonya VCPC members also said they know of impending Mwera winds when a large number of boys and men suffer from ntchofu.

“Some females may also suffer from ntchofu but the majority most of the times are males and they contribute about 75 per cent,” said Lester Mwanawasha.

Mwadzama ACPC and Chigwe VCPC members said that they anticipate Mwera wind after observing how ducks in the area behave. They said the ducks look unsettled and they fly in a special way which signals to the community members that Mwera wind is imminent.

Kossamu said the meetings have generated a lot of information which the department will use in its effort to provide weather information that will be helpful and accessible by all users. He further said the indigenous knowledge should not be thrown away.

“The department will be comparing it with the scientific knowledge. For instance, if we forecast that we will expect Mwera wind in the area of Senor Chief Mwadzama, we will be calling Mwadzama ACPC members to tell us on how the ducks are behaving in their area.

“If they are behaving in a way indicating impending Mwera winds as per the indigenous knowledge, we will be integrating that in our plans,” said Kossamu.

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