SUBASH CHACOWRY *
The three days of Class II for Candice and two days of nationwide warning for time-bound localised floods have gone unexplained and unjustified. The situation was reminiscent of Covid-19 lockdown. The population was stressed. At the Meteorological Services, the shackles of six-hourly reporting and aloofness have remained unchanged. Naturally, the population turns to opportunistic influencers, social media and the Internet for undigested or often unrelated information.
A manifest breach of trust between the population and the authority in the Meteorological Services keeps growing with every natural disaster. This situation has to be reversed for the sake of our security, economy and society.
Scepticism in weather forecasts causes panic. The media desperate for information turns to former officials and often media-savvy individuals with a smattering of meteorological knowledge. As influencers, they rehash their rosy perception of the past and Internet-gained knowledge. They punch the trust that so many over the years have painstakingly contributed to build. The former officials should introspect on their contribution to the current state of affairs. The blame game is counterproductive.
We have had no cyclone for a generation. The nature of hazards keeps evolving as are the attitudes and the environment. The Service sticks to a wind-based warning system. Flooding will continue to be seen as an adjunct to extreme events if the nature and impact of rainfall, and the associated phenomena are not studied and the outcome is operationalised. Other Services and academic institutions should get involved in view of its inter-disciplinary nature. It is high time to review the warning systems.
When dealing with Nature, humility and transparency are essential given the sophistication of our society and the changing climate. The media and the public often deride the Service for the wrong reasons especially when compared to La Réunion. Instead of disparaging these comments, the Service should address these concerns. The media should be its ally.
To its credit, the Service’s four-tier warning system developed in the 1960s has served the nation well. In Mauritius as elsewhere, there is no alternative to a vibrant weather service.
So how can we bring back the trust?
The Service had long been under the aegis of the Prime Minister. Therefore, any Ministry having meteorology in its portfolio should be understanding. It should give the Service the necessary leeway to serve all weather-dependent sectors and avoid distortion in its communication with the population, the private sector and policymakers. The Service should have adequate resources and trained personnel. In addition, the nation should recognise the international nature of meteorology.
To avoid getting into a destructive routine, the Service should challenge itself constantly. It should keep up to date with the most recent scientific developments, stay in close touch with and contribute to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), as in the past. The Organisation’s mandate reflects those of the Service – weather, climate, water, environment, natural disasters and ocean matters. WMO, as a UN agency, coordinates international activities in these fields. It is highly respected and it has a network of global institutions and scientists. The Director of the Service represents Mauritius in WMO, as do sectoral Ministers in other UN agencies.
A catastrophe is a bane but if taken with the right spirit it may be a boon. The 1987 Great Storm led the UK to enhance all its meteorological facilities and its capability. It established the Hadley Centre which is a leading centre for climate change studies.
For Mauritius, a way forward would be to start by restoring serenity. The Service should immediately initiate an internal audit in collaboration with a few concerned stakeholders. This could be followed by an external review. The report of the exercise should be made public to gain the confidence of the population, the private sector and policymakers. As necessary, the 2019 Meteorological Act should be updated. We may not stand another trauma.
*Served in various capacities successively at national, regional and international levels:
- Divisional Meteorologist in the Mauritius Meteorological Services
- WMO Regional Director for Africa
- Special Advisor to WMO Secretary-General