Servaas van den Bosch
WINDHOEK, Feb 8, 2011 (IPS) – A decade after heavy floods wrecked havoc in Southern Africa, the region is better prepared to monitor and respond to seasonal flooding. This is thanks as much to the growing strength of transboundary institutions as it is to technical improvements.
Water levels during this year’s flood season in Southern Africa will likely top the disastrous floods of 2000.
In that year the Mozambican capital Maputo flooded while the banks of the Limpopo burst and some 45,000 people had to be rescued. The floods were compounded by water-borne diseases and a tropical cyclone. Authorities across the region were criticised for failing to anticipate which areas would be worst affected as well as for a slow and inadequate response to the crisis, which cost 800 lives.
Basin-wide warning system
One response to the 2000 disasters was to strengthen the warning systems along the region’s numerous river basins.
A state-of-the-art early warning system was devised for the region. The Southern African Development Community Hydrological Cycle Observing System (SADC-HYCOS) was intended to have 128 weather stations which transmit accurate and regular data to a satellite. A German research institute was to decode the data and post it on a website – the information was to be mirrored on a site maintained by the South African Department of Water Affairs.
“The idea of HYCOS was that all stations transmit in real-time to the same database that could be used to predict floods,” says Guido van Langenhove, Namibia’s chief hydrologist. But while some countries like Namibia and South Africa have set up parts of such a system themselves, HYCOS seems to have become a white – wet – elephant.
According to the South African Department of Water Affairs (DWAF) 108 of the planned 128 stations – each costing $10,000 – were installed. But only one in five is presently transmitting reliable readings.
“There are no operational stations north of Namibia,” says van Langenhove; yet according to DWAF, Angola and Zambia should between them have 17 automated monitoring stations.
“It was a waste of money,” van Langenhove asserts. “A lot of electronic equipment was dumped, but there was no capacity-building or training of technicians. The stations worked sometimes for a week, sometimes for a year. When they broke down there was no one to repair them. Or they started malfunctioning and give the wrong readings. Namibia had nine stations but none of them worked; we had to fix them ourselves.”
He estimates the project cost $4 million. The project’s donor, the Government of the Netherlands, pulled out. The SADC-HYCOS office in Pretoria was dismantled and the project is currently on hold.
Water management without borders
“HYCOS is not operating optimally,” says Phera Ramoeli, chief engineer of the Southern African Development Community’s Water Division. “Some stations were affected by the floods and the information might be inadequate. The project was also delayed because we had to change database systems after one system from the UK became redundant.”
The future of HYCOS is uncertain, but countries seem to be jointly monitoring flooding across the region well, based on the growing quality of their human resources.
Far upstream on the Zambezi, Zambian water officials measure the level of the mighty river and phone the results through to the capital, Lusaka. From here the data is emailed to water departments in other countries.
“This gives us a two week heads up,” says van Langenhove. “We started it after 2008 when large parts of northern Namibia were flooded without any warning.”
On the Kavango River, Namibian hydrologists do the same for their Batswana colleagues working in the Okavango Delta. All across the region, similar ad hoc systems are in place. “It’s a bit informal, but it works,” says van Langenhove.
The system testifies to the relations that have been built up between colleagues and maintained in part thanks to the river basin organisations (RBOs) that have been built up all over the region in the past decade, says Ramoeli.
“Cooperation between countries has been improving. Ten years ago, river basin organisations were few and far between. Now we have basins like ORASECOM and OKACOM where river use protocols have been agreed on by the different states.”
River basin organisations
ORASECOM – the Orange-Senqu River Commission – and OKACOM – the Permanent Okavango Basin Water Commission – are two of the best-established RBOs, each facilitating information-sharing on a regional level among other functions.
“Experts from different countries conduct joint studies that lead to a better understanding of the basin as a whole. Even when there is no formal basin organisation, we see that hydrologists share information via email. So there has been some remarkable development,” says Ramoeli.
“In the past ten years, RBOs have gotten a much better understanding of what actually happens in the basins,” says Peter Pyke, chief engineer at DWAF, who is closely involved with ORASECOM. The Orange River, which flows from the Lesotho Highlands to the Atlantic Ocean on the South African-Namibian border, is one of the rivers that is currently flooding.
Floods are here to stay, says Pyke. “At the moment information from upstream is typically unreliable. If there is a flood coming down it’s hard to get a handle on what is actually happening. There are [too] few gauge stations and a flood can easily develop in between.
“It is not enough just to know how much rain fell upstream. Nor can you open the sluice gates on the speculation that a flood is coming. What if it doesn’t come? Then there is no water for the dry season.”
According to Pyke, South Africa has developed water resource management models that it shares with other basins in the region. “These models allow you to predict what is happening in the basin.”
These predictions would help authorities to plan in the case of impending floods.
“Because of our arid environment we will never entirely eliminate floods. Water authorities in the region will always have to find a balance between keeping the dams as full as possible for the dry season and letting water run through.
“Effective flood control would keep the dams as empty as possible. But that’s not an option as by the end of the flood we need a full dam. So we have to manage the flows carefully, using the different dams to flatten water peaks and avoid them building up into massive floods.”