Getting the President’s ear: Strengthening drought early warning in Botswana

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Blog by: Gina Ziervogel (CSAG/ACDI)

I spent the week in Gaborone with Kulthoum, my PhD student, doing interviews with national level actors. Kulthoum’s focus of her PhD is understanding drought governance from the national to the district level – so what are the institutional arrangements for governing drought decision making and responses, what role do the different stakeholders play at different scales and where does power and influence lie.

So although the focus was not on urban decision making, there was an interesting story about how strengthening data access and analysis has led to improved understanding of drought, that has been communicated to the top levels of government.  I thought this would be of interest to the FRACTAL project, given that Gaborone is one of the secondary cities and understanding how climate science can improve decision making is a central focus.

Firstly, when it comes to climate change scenario development, this does not seem to be happening in Botswana. So for the Second National Communication, the Botswana Meteorological Services (BMS) refer to drawing on the MAGIC/SCENGEN scenarios but don’t have resources to do their own climate change modelling.  They do have a focus on seasonal climate forecasts and some lessons learnt there relate strongly to drought response and integrating science into decision making.

One of the agrometeorologists (Scientist A) has been part of the SARCOF (Southern African Regional Climate Outlook Forum) SADC meetings over the past few years, where meteorologists from across SADC come together to produce a regional seasonal climate forecast around September. Scientist A wasn’t happy with SFC outputs that just stated below normal for Botswana last season and so wanted to refine it on her return. She worked with using the SPI/correlation and drought indices (including remote sensing, decile maps and vegetative conditions index). Given there was a high skill she had more trust in the model for 2015/2016 season, leading her to believe it would be an extremely dry season.  So Scientist A briefed the minister on this and because of the extreme seasonal forecast, he asked her to brief cabinet, which had not happened before.  Although some were sceptical, the President wanted to listen to the science rather than listen to the sceptics.  It turned out that 2016 was one of the worst drought in 34 years.

She also invited some of the committee that formulate recommendations around drought responses to one of the training sessions so that they could understand the remote sensing methodologies she was using better as in the past they couldn’t understand her presentations. The committee members appreciated understanding the science and this year they might use her approach to try and identify hotspots of concern in order to target their local level assessments.

The Ministry of Agriculture minister was asking what the forecast suggested for agriculture and so Scientist A was brought in to brief the related ministers and directors.  One of the responses they wanted to implement given the drought forecast was to put more money into infrastructure rather than continuing to provide seeds and encourage planning. This didn’t happen in the end as they still provided seed.

One of the reasons that Scientist A was able to develop the forecast and bring in new skills around drought forecasting was because of her training and the support of the MESA programme. This is an EU-funded programme working in SADC that seems to have had a major impact on improving drought, fire and flood responses. Through focusing on improving the science and decision making support, they are hoping to influence policy and practice and from this example it seems as though it is working.

Scientist A did suggest that one of the big gaps for research is to better understand how to move from improvements in the science to helping them inform high-level decision makers and politicians in order to inform policy and strengthen implementation at the local level.

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