Met department sends chilling warning

By Tsitsi Matope

MASERU — The Lesotho Meteorological Services has projected an “abnormally cold” winter this year, which is also expected to be unusually long and rainy.
The Lesotho Times (LT) this week met with the Lesotho Meteorological Services Principal Meteorologist, Ms Mathabo Mahahabisa, who not only gave the chilling prediction but also spoke about how the country is implementing its climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes.

LT: Winter is upon us, as indicated by the drop in temperatures over recent days. According to your projections, what kind of winter should the nation expect this year?

Mahahabisa: We are expecting normal to below normal weather conditions countrywide. We are also expecting average to below normal rainfall throughout the country. Nonetheless, we have already had some rains in some parts of the country beginning last month (April).

LT: Normal to below normal temperatures and average to below normal rainfall does not mean much to a layman. Could you please elaborate what this means in everyday language?

Mahahabisa: Well, in terms of temperature, it means while we are going to experience normal cold, there is also a high likelihood that we are also going to have spells of extreme and abnormally-cold conditions.
It means temperatures, at varying points during the season, are going to drop significantly in all parts of the country.
We are going to experience below freezing point conditions, and have snowfalls even in some low-lying areas.
It is important for members of the public to be well-prepared for these extreme cold spells this winter in terms of ensuring they have sufficient heating systems, to also pay attention to daily weather updates and know when not to travel to certain areas, particularly the highlands. We are also expecting a low rainfall pattern this winter.

LT: When should we expect temperatures to start dropping to these alarming levels?

Mahahabisa: Temperatures started dropping significantly in the highlands as early as March. The temperature in Oxbow, Butha-Buthe District, dropped to -0.2 degrees Celsius during the end of March, which is quite cold.

LT: So would you say the winter season came a bit earlier than normal this year? Is there also likelihood that this year’s winter could be prolonged?

Mahahabisa: Yes, we are also expecting the country to be under winter conditions up until August.

LT: What would your advice be to farmers planning to venture into agricultural activities this winter?

Mahahabisa: I would say they should go for it because although we are not expecting much rain, the ground will still be moist following a very good summer rainfall season.
As a result, the crops will not become water-stressed because the little rainfall we are expecting would be enough to sustain production.
The low temperature conditions will also play an important role by helping reduce water-evaporation.

LT: Would you say your models are hinting another successful summer agricultural season after a severe winter?

Mahahabisa: At the moment, I am afraid not. What we are reading in our satellite pictures is a neutral El-Nino phenomenon which is showing signs of becoming stronger around September.
If what we are projecting happens, this El-Nino phenomenon will bring dry conditions over Lesotho during the summer season (October to March). What this means is we will have a drought during this period.

LT: What does this trend tell us? One year we have plenty of rains with flooding in some areas, followed by a devastating drought?

Mahahabisa: Well, that has been the concern in all African countries for quite some time now. If the trend was going to be three summer seasons of favourable rains followed by less rain, we would not be very concerned.
That would mean farmers would have uninterrupted three seasons of food production, which would have a positive impact on the economy.
It would also mean that we can plan better and work on an environment that is normal and predictable. This is not what we are seeing.
What we are experiencing weather and climate-wise, are extreme conditions we have no control over.

LT: What does that really mean for the country?

Mahahabisa: Climate-induced disasters cost the country a lot in terms of hunger, making people poorer, diseased and the infrastructure, weak.
In short, there are costly effects to human beings, to the economy and everything around us.
The reality for Lesotho and many other least-developed countries is that it is expensive and time-consuming to effectively mitigate the effects of climate change.
With adequate support and collaboration, we can quickly adapt. This can also mean poorer communities whose source of livelihood is agriculture, stand a chance of surviving the effects of climate change.

LT: How are you assisting poor communities cope with climate change?

Mahahabisa: Critically, they need to know that climate change is real and understand how it threatens our existence if we fail to adapt.
We cannot perpetuate an attitude that says: if there is drought, the government and development-partners will help us. The truth of the matter is that the increased frequency of extreme weather conditions globally can mean no food interventions might come in future.
This reality should dictate to us the need to work towards surviving climate change through the adoption of various practices.
We need to take up smart climate proof approaches in all our sectors, be it construction, where we now need to build resilient structures that cannot be easily blown away by strong winds.
We can also adopt climate-proof farming practices and technologies such as conservation agriculture and planting seed varieties that can withstand dry or very wet conditions.
I would strongly say adaptation is our only hope in the short-term because we can afford it.

LT: How are you ensuring that your messages of adaptation and hope resonate with the rest of the nation?

Mahahabisa: Adapting to shifting weather patterns or climate change, is the way to go for us as a country as an immediate intervention.
We can pool our resources together and manage to put in place simple mechanisms that can quickly help communities survive climate change.
It is important that we are realistic about what we can do to save ourselves immediately and what we can still do as an ongoing process. Under our Improvement of Early Warning System to Reduce Impacts of Climate Change and Capacity Building to Integrate Climate Change into Development Plans Programme, we are implementing various components we identified as critical to immediately fight the effects of climate change.
This Global Environment Facility (GEF) programme understands that our biggest challenge, at the moment, is having effective early-warning systems.
These systems can help us know well on time, weather events to expect and help improve preparedness by all sectors.
It also takes cognisance of the need to improve our communication-networks between the Met Services, the Disaster Management Authority, the local communities and other stakeholders.
We will soon establish three automatic weather stations to improve the fast flow of data and for us to meet this communication obligation.
Above all, this programme emphasises the need to adequately equip all stakeholders, in particular the communities, about climate change and its effects.
We want to help them change their lifestyle by employing life-saving practices. We need to keep the climate change dialogue alive and always remind each other that climate change is not going to go away anytime soon.

LT: And mitigation?

Mahahabisa: For Lesotho, mitigation is a development opportunity. We already have areas we can tap into to contribute towards the reduction of greenhouse emissions and reverse the effects of climate change.
We can invest in hydro-power development, as well as solar and wind energy. However, we should also not forget that reducing emissions must be a global effort and we know that efforts through the Kyoto Protocol failed due to some big greenhouse emitters’ lack of commitment to significantly reduce their emissions.
What this should tell us is that climate change is likely to stay with us for a very long time.
While we should invest in mitigation, it makes real sense for us to put more effort on adaptation because of issues beyond our control such as commitment failures by big emitters.

LT: Do you think some of the mitigation technologies are practical in most African countries, taking for example how much land solar panels have to occupy to generate power to run manufacturing entities?

Mahahabisa: Yes, there could be issues around the practicality and cumbersome nature of some clean energy technologies such as wind farms and solar infrastructure in relation to the benefits.
What we need is to do all we can to ensure we contribute towards reducing greenhouse emissions.
Putting in place large-scale mitigation technologies is a new thing in most African countries and can also be costly.
Therefore, it is not strange that some stakeholders might not understand the logic and would shake their heads from time to time at some of these initiatives.
But I strongly feel that climate change is seriously a life and death issue, so our choices should be guided by whether we would like to sustain humanity or we would like to reach a point of no return before we can all panic.
We can start small by harnessing solar energy, for example, at household level, which is good. We were earlier on talking about having a lot of sun and drought this coming summer.
Why can’t we make use of that sun and help reverse the situation causing us to have global warming in the first place?
It is like taking something found in a disease to cure the same disease. Some solutions are not far from us.

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