Keynote address by Ms Ntsoaki Mngomezulu, Chairperson of the SAWS on behalf of Minister Edna Molewa at the 2018 Weathersmart Science Symposium

15 March 2018

 

Chief Executive Officer of the South African Weather Service, Mr Jerry Lengoasa,
Weather and Climate Stakeholders;
Valued Delegates and Guests;
South African Weather Service Staff;

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a privilege for me to welcome and address you at the first annual WeatherSMART Science Symposium, which forms part of celebrations to mark World Meteorological Day which is internationally observed on the 23rd of March.

This symposium is regarded as a first step towards a more integrated approach in communicating weather and climate research, which has become essential in an environment where the impact of weather and climate on our socio- economic environment has become even more crucial.  

The theme for this year’s celebrations is “weather-ready, climate-smart” which is relevant to us as the

Department as we are currently working in collaboration with the South African Weather Service (SAWS) to finalise and coordinate the National Framework on Climate Services (NFCS). The overarching goal of the NFCS is to enable better management of the risks of climate variability and change at all levels, through development and incorporation of science based climate information and prediction services into planning, policy and practice.

The nature of the NFCS requires an interface with different stakeholders in various levels of government, and outside government. Therefore, successful implementation of the NFCS requires a well-coordinated structure with good governance, to enhance the country’s capability to provide integrated climate services to the various users, in a manner that empowers them to be climate resilient.

Furthermore, the deliberations during this symposium will contribute significantly towards the continuous implementation of climate response policy as well as our Nationally Determined Contributions with particular focus on enhancing the early warning systems.

Across the world, the ever-growing global population faces a wide range of hazards such as the tropical cyclone, storm surges, heavy rains, heat waves, droughts and many more climate related risks. South Africa is not immune to these climate risks, as we have witnessed in recent times unprecedented levels of extreme events due to climatic variability in our country. As a matter of fact, this week our government declared the current drought crisis across the country a national disaster. 

In recent years, South Africa has experienced an El Niño-related drought reported to be one of the worst meteorological droughts since 1904. The drought and heat conditions have impacted on the already dry and drought-stricken country, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and affecting sectors such as water and agriculture. In recent times, South Africa have been experiencing extreme event such as heat wave, storm surges, flooding and freezing winters.

During periods of heat waves, our bodies respond by sweating to cool down, because extreme heat can also be fatal to our health. During freezing winters, our bodies shiver to generate heat,  and cold air can be extremely uncomfortable to the vulnerable. Despite all these extremes, humanity has for over millions of years adapted to function. Humans have adapted to flourish within confined climate and weather boundaries, which is defined as “our climate comfort zone”. 

Anthropogenic global warming, which emanated from industrial and socio-economic growth in “our climate comfort zone”, is posing a risk of shifting the climate beyond “our climate comfort zone’s” boundaries. This will not only affect our physiological and emotional state, but can have far-reaching implications on the way we think, function, behave and respond.

Weather hazards like thunderstorms, tornados, strong winds and prolonged droughts all appear to have an increased impact on the availability of water, food and socio-economic activities. 

It is therefore essential that we are not only aware of changes in weather and climate patterns, but that we also become more informed and prepared to the risks posed by the many weather hazards that we are facing today.

Compared to the rest of the world, South Africa finds itself in a unique climate situation. Not only are we surrounded by the ocean, but our weather and climate are influenced by conditions arising in different regions of the world. Given our location within the sub-tropics of the Southern Hemisphere where some of the world’s most extensive and driest deserts are found – the Kalahari, Namibia, Atacama and Australian deserts - droughts are a natural occurrence.  

Despite these dry conditions, moisture for summer rain is drawn from the Indian Ocean, across equatorial Africa, towards South Africa. In contrast, winter rain appears as a result of large cold air masses, known as cold fronts, which pass across the southern tip of the African continent during the winter months. These heavy air masses push moisture up into the atmosphere creating clouds and rain.

Our rainfall is therefore not a given, but a blessing from Mother Nature – a process that results from extended moisture transport routes to bring us rain.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since our weather is influenced by a variety of factors, it can be described as highly variable, which, in many cases, pose a challenge to weather forecasters and climate scientists. 

Many of these weather experts are employed by the SAWS – one of the oldest services of its kind in Southern Africa.  SAWS has had an impressive record of observations and forecasting since its establishment in 1860.

On 15 July 2001, the Weather Service became a Public Entity in terms of the South African Weather Service Act (as amended in 2013), under the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, and is overseen by a Board, on behalf of government as a Shareholder. 

As an authoritative voice for weather and climate forecasting in South Africa, and as a member of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), it complies with international meteorological standards. The Weather Service provides two distinct services, namely public good services that are funded by government, as well as commercial services.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, the South African Weather Service hosts 243 weather stations, 1 333 rainfall stations, 23 sea-surface temperature stations, 47 weather buoys in the Southern Ocean, 14 meteorological radar systems, 24 lightning detection sensors as well as a variety of other observational instrumentation and facilities.

SAWS recently adopted a more service-orientated vision, namely to create a WeatherSMART nation. This vision aims to ensure that climate data, products and its applications are available to all 55 million South Africans to not only enhance the quality of life of our people, but also to build weather and climate resilience, and to mitigate climate change and its impacts on society.

SAWS supports the Department of Environmental Affairs in its aim to radically transform our approach to environmental protection balanced with socio-economic development. These are the crucial pillars on which sustainable development rests. 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As mentioned earlier, extreme weather conditions have almost become the norm for many of our people as climate change continues to manifest itself – not only here in South Africa, but also in Africa and the rest of the world.

The year 2017 was no exception.  It was a year characterised by extreme weather hazards that disrupted the lives of thousands of our citizens, and caused damage to infrastructure and property.  Severe storms associated with strong winds, heavy rains, hail and flooding were reported at various locations across the country on more than 50 days in 2017.   These storms were mostly associated with lightning, where 9 people were reported to have been killed and many injured.

I will mention just some of the incidents:

  • On 9 October 2017, at least 3 tornadoes were reported in the Free State, North-West and Gauteng Provinces, which caused the death of 4 people.   On 11 December 2017, a tornado caused extensive damage in the Vaal Marina area in Midvaal, Gauteng.   A total of 1 100 shack dwellers of Mamello were left homeless when 550 homes were damaged or completely destroyed. About 50 people sustained injuries.
  • On 16 February 2017, the tropical cyclone Dineo passed over Mozambique, leaving seven people dead, 55 injured, about 20 000 homes and buildings destroyed, while more than 100 000 people were displaced.
  • On more than 20 days of 2017, we had veld fires accompanied by strong winds.
  • Raging veld fires that started in the Knysna area on 7 June 2017 were fanned by gale force winds for three consecutive days. The fires caused extensive damage over a very large area along the Garden Route. More than 10 000 Knysna residents were displaced after the fires swept through 20 residential suburbs. About 300 properties, including homes, schools, businesses and infrastructure, such as power lines, were completely destroyed.
  • The drought conditions in the Western Cape have persisted throughout the 2017-2018 summer, with dam levels decreasing continuously despite some areas receiving rain. Areas in the Eastern Cape are also experiencing severe dry conditions.

These incidents are an illustration of the devastating impact that weather and climate extremes can bring.

Resilience against these excesses can only be achieved through collaborative efforts between Government Departments, such as the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African Weather Service with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs that host the National Disaster Management Centre.

What is more important, is that we gain more knowledge on the drivers and characteristics of these weather hazards in order to help us predict them in advance. To achieve improved early warning systems and to build on weather and climate research, knowledge sharing and research communication amongst various at risk communities and stakeholders is required.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The South African Weather Service was recently awarded National Science Council status placing it in a stronger position to conduct quality research. The institution is therefore qualified, as universities and other science councils, to receive research funding from the Department of Science and Technology. It can now also host external students and researchers. 

The Weather Service is currently hosting an active Research and Development Department, from where research on historical climate variability, short-term weather forecasting, as well as longer-term climate outlooks, which include seasonal predictions to climate change projections, are conducted. In addition, a huge effort goes into the development of research applications, with a focus on the water, agricultural, energy and health sectors.

Research efforts are supported by powerful High Performance Computing infrastructure, a comprehensive network of observations, which include a comprehensive Weather Radar Network, as well as by in-house data collection and archiving facilities.

Over a period of a few decades, weather and climate research has been developed into a sophisticated science, which is not only based on geography, but also on the mathematics and physics that govern wind flow, heat exchanges and cloud formation.

Complex atmospheric models have been developed, and are today commonly used to generate short-term forecasts, seasonal predictions, as well as climate change projections.  

A more recent development is that the SAWS has agreed to host the South African Air Quality Information System, in close collaboration with the Department of Environmental Affairs. This system provides a common platform for managing air quality information in South Africa, which might pose a risk to society in industrialised urban areas. Here, the Weather Service is also conducting research on the implementation of an air quality forecasting system. 

The research capacity and responsibilities of the Weather Service have grown significantly over the past years. Not only had the organisation became an international competitor in the in-house modelling of weather and climate outlooks, but it is also in the process of developing application tools targeted at various climate and weather sensitive sectors.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I feel particularly privileged today to be part of the first WeatherSMART Science Symposium.

I am pleased that the aim of the symposium is to share the latest South African Weather Service (SAWS) research findings on weather, climate and air quality, together with their application value, with research orientated stakeholders, as well as with the South African public.

This innovative initiative will not only promote efforts to create a WeatherSMART nation, but will also serve as communication platform from where greater weather and climate resilience can be achieved.

The approach to move from “What the weather will be” to “What the weather will do” will add significant value to weather forecasts and climate outlooks, which, in turn, are important stepping stones in our nation’s route towards environmental protection, socio-economic growth, and most importantly, weather and climate resilience in all sectors of society.

With its internationally-recognised activities in Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation, as well as in Air Quality, the Department of Environmental Affairs is well-positioned to contribute to the atmospheric science community by participating and collaborating in advanced atmospheric research initiatives and projects.

I wish you all the best with the symposium, and I am looking forward to support the symposia in future.

I thank you