Before Idai: how humanitarian action is evolving to act on forecasts

By Dr Liz Stephens, University of Reading

Photo: Denis Onyodi | Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

Humanitarian action for natural hazards is evolving, learning from catastrophic events such as the 2011 Horn of Africa famine, and the Mozambique floods of 2000.

While the full extent of the impact of Cyclone Idai is still unknown, we do know that even with the airport closed and roads impassable, the Mozambique Red Cross were already on the ground in Beira having been preparing communities by disseminating early warning messages and prepositioning non-food items such as emergency shelter kits, blankets, and mosquito nets.

The preparedness activities led by the Mozambique Red Cross were facilitated by an innovative humanitarian system known as ‘Forecast-based Action’, whereby early action plans are triggered when a specific forecast of a natural hazard is made. These early action plans are supported by evidence from academics, with research contributing to early pilot projects in Uganda and Peru, and ongoing research under NERC / DfID’s SHEAR programme providing the tools and evidence to support the scale-up from these initial pilot projects to systematic international financing mechanisms for approving and funding early action on the basis of a forecast.

As part of the Forecasts for Anticipatory Humanitarian Action (FATHUM) project, my team of researchers has been supporting the Mozambique Red Cross and German Red Cross in the development of early action protocols for preparing for tropical cyclones. This work has addressed the relationship between tropical cyclone magnitude and associated impacts in the country, and has prompted discussions about the most appropriate actions to take to reduce the risk. For example, while installation of temporary roofing is a valuable early action for heavy rainfall caused by El Nino events in northern Peru, this is inappropriate during tropical cyclones where strong winds and poorly-secured roofing create an additional hazard.

On March 14th 2019, a day before Idai hit the coast of Mozambique, 340,000 swiss francs were released from the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to directly assist 7500 people believed to be at risk. At this point it was estimated that just over 100,000 people would be affected by this storm, but even with the full extent of the disaster yet to emerge we can already see that this number is now much higher, with reports that at least 400,000 people have been made homeless in Mozambique alone, with many more affected in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

As with any innovation there is always room for improvement. Our research in understanding tropical cyclone impacts in Mozambique has been hampered by the lack of comprehensive historical data of rainfall, winds, and storm surge impacts as well as vulnerability data that you might expect to find for countries affected by Atlantic hurricanes, for example. But in addition to that, more research and development is clearly needed to create more impact-relevant forecasts to support decision-making.

For example, while the wind strength of the storm as it made landfall on the 15th was forecasted well as far ahead as March 10th, uncertainty over the magnitude and location of both the storm surge and heaviest rainfall makes the impactful flooding much harder to predict. Put another way, while we were sure that Cyclone Idai would make contact with Mozambique as a “very dangerous system” many days ahead, the Global Flood Awareness System hovered around a 20% chance of severe flooding on the Buzi River, only giving certainty once the storm had made landfall. We now know that flooding has hit 5000 people in the Buzi District alone (personal communication with the Mozambique Red Cross).

Over the coming days and weeks, we will see better information emerge about the impacts of the storm, and unfortunately we are also likely to hear about the secondary impacts, such as outbreaks of disease, which happen after news crews have left the region.

Acting on early warnings is one part of the picture when it comes to building resilience to weather extremes, and Forecast-based Action is just one cog in the humanitarian financing machinery. Successfully avoiding impacts on this scale requires linking together long-term disaster reduction with better early action and faster response, by both supporting local capacity and mobilising the international community when the local capacity is overwhelmed.

Behind the scenes the humanitarian community will be working hard to identify lessons learned and improve plans and processes. Researchers from across the interdisciplinary FATHUM project will be using this storm as an opportunity to better understand the skill of flood forecasts during tropical cyclones, to improve our understanding of the complexity of impacts driven by both wind and rain, and to better identify appropriate early actions. One thing already emerging is the suggestion of using this Forecast-based Action mechanism to establish emergency communication systems before a disaster; something that would no doubt improve the humanitarian response by enabling earlier assessment of impacts.

Top: forecast on the Buzi River on March 11th showing a small probability of extreme flooding (a few forecast scenarios are within the pink colour); Bottom: forecast on the Buzi River on March 16th, showing certainty of extreme flooding (all forecast scenarios are within the pink colour). Source:

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