ENTEBBE, Uganda (AlertNet) – Hands on hips, Francis Kalanda looks out across the blue waters of Lake Victoria on a windy morning at Kiyindi landing site. His small motorised boat, loaded with merchandise and travellers, will soon set off on the 30 km (19 mile) journey to Lambu Island.
But Kalanda knows better than to trust the weather. “The lake has no friends. It can turn into a monster and swallow you even if you have worked on it all your life,” he says soberly.
Kalanda vividly recalls the accidents that have stolen the lives of some of his colleagues on Africa’s largest lake. Last year, a boat on its way to the Buvuma islands encountered a major storm and capsized. There were no survivors.
The weather on Lake Victoria is increasingly unpredictable, and scientists believe this trend could be related to climate change. In response, Uganda’s Department of Meteorology is collaborating with businesses, nongovernmental organisations and local communities in an innovative scheme that issues daily forecasts via mobile phones to help boatmen avoid danger.
Lake Victoria, shared by the East African states of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, is the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. It provides a livelihood, directly or indirectly, to over 3.5 million people, including many who navigate its waters as fishermen or boat operators.
But officials estimate that more than 5,000 people perish on the lake every year because they are unprepared for bad weather conditions. Crews and their passengers - often in overloaded vessels and without safety equipment like life jackets - are vulnerable to sudden storms.
SERVICE TO EXPAND
“Bad weather is the leading cause of accidents and death on our lakes. If the boatmen are informed of the weather forecasts in real time, they can make important decisions regarding safety on their journeys,” explained Michael Nkalubo, commissioner of Uganda’s meteorological department.
“We are not yet able to conclusively link the unpredictable weather patterns on the lake to climate change,” he added. But scientists from the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre in Nairobi are working with other East African researchers to better understand the possible connections, he noted.
The new Mobile Weather Alert service combines mobile phone technology, weather forecasting and local knowhow to provide localised daily weather information to fishing communities in Kalangala District, which covers the Ssese Islands in the northwest of Lake Victoria.
Training in how to understand forecasts and respond to bad-weather alerts has been given to 19 fishermen.
Equipped with mobile phones, these community representatives pass on the information they receive to other fishermen and traders via short text messages (SMS). More than 1,000 have signed up for the service, which delivers the forecasts and promptly timed warnings in local languages.
The communications partnership involves the Ugandan government, the World Meteorological Organization, mobile phone firm MTN, mobile technology manufacturer Ericsson, the National Lake Rescue Institute and the fishing community.
The project is still in its pilot phase, but in a recent survey of 200 fishermen using it, 96 percent said it had improved their safety.
A more extensive free service, covering all Lake Victoria communities, will become available in the next three months, officials say.
SAFETY KIT NOT UNIVERSAL
Further south at Nakiwogo Pier on the Entebbe peninsula, 100 km (63 miles) from the Kiyindi landing site, MV Kalangala blasts its horn, ready to set sail for the Ssese Islands. The medium-sized ship has some lifesaving equipment on board.
David Kabuye, a worker with Ssese Habitat Resort, a tour company, says his business has furnished life jackets for all 45 passengers booked on the Kalangala.
“We always do this, and there are also additional life jackets provided by the ship crew,” he adds.
The last warning horn sounds and the ship sails off, laden with passengers and cargo including five vehicles.
Jamal Semengo, a canoe operator, is among the small crowd seeing off the ship. In his canoe, he plies the busy route from Nakiwogo to Buwaaya landing site across the Entebbe peninsula.
His small craft can carry up to 18 passengers and cargo, but has no life jackets, nor even plastic floats for its occupants to cling onto if it capsizes.
“Passengers are not willing to pay any extra charge for life jackets. Sometimes the water becomes dangerous and we do not risk travelling,” says the boatman.
The 6 km (4 mile) stretch can be treacherous. Richard Odingo, a professor at Nairobi University who has studied climate patterns on Lake Victoria, says the period around June and July is the most dangerous.
Semengo agrees. “You have to be extra careful as the winds can change suddenly, making it dangerous to navigate the waters,” he says.
Yunus Katongole, a student at Entebbe Comprehensive College on the mainland, crosses daily to Nakiwogo from Buwaaya village in one of the motorised canoes.
“I prefer using the small boats because they do not delay. But when the weather is bad we wait for the government ferry which is free but takes longer,” he says.
Despite more rigorous inspections and enforcement by the authorities to prevent overloading of boats, as well as efforts by some groups in recent years to have free life jackets distributed to travellers on Uganda’s lakes, safety equipment is still not universal.
EARLY WARNING ‘CRITICAL’
This makes the new forecasting and alerting scheme all the more necessary.
“Severe weather and climate events account for almost 90 percent of natural disasters and related losses of life and property globally,” Mary Power, director of resource mobilisation for the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement.
“Establishing and sustaining early warning systems in places vulnerable to these events, such as Lake Victoria, where low incomes and marginal living conditions increase people’s vulnerability, is critical.”
Nkalubo of Uganda’s Department of Meteorology praised the new scheme.
“This is a real demonstration of the importance of meteorological expertise to our society, with valuable feedback on the reliability of our forecasts for very localised conditions on Lake Victoria,” he said.
As the providers of the Mobile Weather Alert service prepare to expand the project, Jamal Semengo fires up his tiny motor engine in Nakiwogo and gets ready to cross the water. The scheme doesn’t yet cover his area of the lake, but he is glad to hear about it.
“I hope that one day I will too receive this life-saving information,” he says.
Patrick Luganda is a Kampala-based journalist, media trainer and consultant who specialises in science and environment issues. He is the CEO of Farmers Media Link Ltd, and also chairs the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa (NECJOGHA).