Weather and Climate Resilience

Effective preparedness through National Meteorological and Hydrological Services1

by David Rogers and Vladimir Tsirkunov of the World Bank


Faced with a growing risk of weather and climate related disasters that can set back economic and social development for years, the global community needs to act quickly to strengthen National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs). This strengthening should be done in a way that transforms weak agencies – especially in the developing world – into robust professional agencies capable of delivering the right information to the right people at the right time. Although the price tag of modernizing and sustaining NMHSs will be considerable, the rewards for the country and its citizens will be much higher. The World Bank, working closely with WMO and other development partners, can help countries navigate this complex task in a timely, efficient manner.1

The need to serve more elaborate societal needs, minimize growing economic losses from natural hazards and help countries adapt to climate change is increasing the importance of weather, climate and water information. Weather, climate and water affect societies and economies through extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, floods, high winds, storm surges and prolonged droughts, and through high impact weather and climate events that affect demand for electricity and production capacity, planting and harvesting dates, managing construction, transportation networks and inventories, and human health.

Costs of modernizing NMHSs

The key players are the NMHSs, which are the backbone of the global weather and climate enterprise. They are the authoritative source of weather, climate and water information, providing timely input to emergency managers, national and local administrations, the public and critical economic sectors.

NMHSs are a small but important public sector agencies – with budgets of usually about 0.01 to 0.05 per cent of national gross domestic product and total annual public funding globally of more than US$ 15 billion. The problem is that their capacity has become so degraded in many regions over the past 15 to 20 years – primarily owing to underfunding, low visibility, economic reforms and in some instances military conflict – that they are now inadequate. As a result, globally, NMHSs in more than 100 countries – over half of which are in Africa –need to be modernized.

How much will modernization cost? A conservative estimate of high-priority modernization investment needs in developing countries exceeds US$ 1.5 billion to US$ 2.0 billion. In addition, a minimum of US$ 400 million to US$ 500 million per year will be needed to support operations of the modernized systems (staff costs plus operating and maintenance costs). These recurrent costs should be covered by national governments, but few have been able to do so. Moreover, the amount of international support for the NMHSs is significantly below what is needed just for the high-priority items.

Complicating matters is that internationally supported NMHSs modernization efforts in the developing world have achieved only limited success so far, owing to:

  • Insufficient communication directed at governments and agencies with many competing priorities and limited budgets in order for them to gain a full appreciation of the value of the NMHSs;
  • A preoccupation with project time-scale installation of hardware without adequate provision for training, ongoing maintenance, consumables, and other continuing technical support;
  • A multiplicity of uncoordinated projects from different donors, each with its own assistance policies, objectives, and equipment suppliers, without sufficient regard to the individual NMHSs' needs, circumstances, and priorities; and
  • The technical complexity of the projects.

What can be done to improve the track record of modernization efforts and help policy-makers realize the urgent need to overhaul NMHSs? To help answer this question, studies – several by WMO in the build up to the World Climate Conference-3 – analyzed the overall global meteorological and hydrological system, its importance for the effectiveness of NMHSs, the obstacles to modernization, and possible desirable operating models. One study by the World Bank combined desktop analyses based on existing documentation with expert opinion and the experience of several leading NMHSs – the UK Met Office, MeteoSwiss and the China Meteorological Administration. It synthesized recent experiences of the World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), WMO and other development partners. It also builds on key recent World Bank strategic documents on economic growth and environmental sustainability.

The World Bank study – like the WMO studies – underscored the urgent need to strengthen NMHSs, especially those in developing countries, and provides cost-benefit estimates of the return that countries can hope to achieve. It recommended an approach that has been tested and implemented in Europe, Central and South Asia and other regions. It also underscores the significance of international collaboration to access data, knowledge, and know-how of the large-scale atmospheric and oceanic conditions that drive the global weather patterns that affect individual countries.

Another study (Hallegatte 2012) conservatively estimated that upgrading all hydrometeorological information production and early-warning capacity in developing countries would save an average of 23 000 lives annually and would provide between US$ 3 billion and US$ 30 billion per year in additional economic benefits related to disaster reduction.

Why are NMHSs important?

Weather, climate, and water hazards

In recent years – thanks largely to advances in weather forecasting and risk assessments – people have been better prepared for natural disasters. Despite an increase in the number of disasters and people affected since 1980, the number of people killed has not risen significantly. However, there is a huge concern that the number of people affected and the number of disasters will continue to rise and will in turn increase the number of people killed if governments and other stakeholders do not intervene. The reasons are many:

  • An increasing number of people and assets are located in areas of high risk;
  • Developing countries will continue to be exposed to frequent and extreme weather, water and climate events as climate change exacerbates these extremes;
  • The world's population continues to explode;
  • The urbanization trend continues, with more people living in cities than ever before; and
  • Weather- and climate-sensitive diseases claim more than 1 million lives each year; most are children under five years of age in developing countries.

Between 1970 and 2010, natural hazards killed about 3.3 million people (World Bank 2010). They also took a huge financial toll on human well-being. In 2011, about 206 million people were victims of natural disasters, and the economic impact was US$ 366 billion. During a longer period, between 1980 and 2011, the total estimated financial cost from floods, droughts, and storms was more than US$ 3.5 trillion.

Weather, climate, and water forecasts

The NMHSs make a significant contribution to safety, security and economic well-being by observing, forecasting and warning of pending weather, climate and water threats. However, this contribution is rarely quantified, which often results in an undervaluing of the vital role that NMHSs play in a country's capacity to cope with meteorological and hydrological hazards. Also severely undervalued are the economic benefits of accurate weather, climate and water information to increase productivity and avoid losses.

Accurate forecasting depends on a network of global, regional and national remote and in situ observations of the atmosphere, oceans and land that are conducted by NMHSs and their partners. These observations are assimilated by a network of global and regional forecast centres, which have differentiated responsibilities for the production of global, regional and national products. This system ensures that large-scale numerical predictions – which are needed for a good national forecast but require enormous computing power – are created cost-effectively by a few NMHSs and supporting organizations on behalf of all Members of the WMO.

Alone, no nation would be able to provide the meteorological and hydrological services necessary to meet the essential needs of its citizens. But as WMO Members, countries agree on data-sharing arrangements, establish operational guidelines, implement best practices, and develop and use training opportunities. This international cooperation, however, depends on the continued investment of advanced countries in developing and supporting meteorological satellites, major computing facilities, and research and development. It also depends on regional investment in adapting global products for regional and national application. And it depends on national investment in maintaining NMHSs' observation networks and tailoring services to the needs of the population and specific economic sectors.

What are the obstacles to better NMHSs?

Lack of capacity

Despite their importance, many NMHSs in developing countries lack the capacity to provide even a basic level of services. The massive underfunding of NMHSs has led to (a) a deterioration of meteorological and hydrological observation networks and outdated technology, (b) a lack of modern equipment and forecasting methods, (c) poor quality of services, (d) insufficient support for research and development, and (e) an erosion of the workforce (resulting in a lack of trained specialists). As a result, substantial human and financial losses have occurred, which could have been avoided if weather and water agencies were more developed. Climate-resilient development requires stronger institutions and a higher level of observation, forecasting, and service delivery capacity. In addition, successful adaptation to the existing and future weather and climate variability is impossible without reliable and well-functioning NMHSs.

The WMO Severe Weather Forecasting Demonstration Project has highlighted the importance of the regional, specialized and global centres in helping countries reach a high level of service. But there too investment is limited, often hampering the capacity of these centres to provide on-demand guidance. Although a national focus is primary, the benefit of international cooperation and collaboration must also be considered. Synergy between the different levels ensures that national data are available to improve model output at regional and global centres. The high value-added segment of the production chain with regard to numerical weather prediction and space-based observations is at the global level. At present, it is assumed that developed economies will continue to support this segment. But this assumption is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Public financing of NMHSs

Nearly all NMHSs started as public service institutions that were funded exclusively by government2. But at the end of the 20th century, a series of economic policy shifts occurred in both developed and developing countries, resulting in public policies less supportive of this concept. There has been a growing expectation among many governments that the public sector should raise revenue from the sale of services to other government departments and to the public. This view presents serious threats to the continued free and unrestricted exchange of information that WMO has always pursued.

In response, institutional frameworks have been adjusted to give NMHSs more flexibility to generate revenue and to use that revenue to expand and improve services. As claims on limited tax revenue have increased, greater emphasis has been put on applying the principle that the user should pay for government services.

This commercial approach does not take into account the natural monopoly component of this type of information – which requires large fixed investments with a quasi-zero marginal distribution cost, thus should be available for free. Without the large fixed public (NMHSs) investments, it is impossible to sustain the observation networks, except for geographically constrained and specialized applications. Without these observations, basic forecasts are limited and value-added services to end-users are not possible. This situation undermines civil protection, food security, water resource management, energy and emergency management, and economic development.

Key principles for modernizing NMHSs

In response to the growing risk of meteorological and hydrological hazards, the study has identified six principles for improving NMHSs in developing countries:

Principle 1: Modernizing NMHSs in developing countries is a high-value investment

Although the challenges in modernizing NMHSs are great, so too are the potential benefits to societies coping with meteorological and hydrological hazards and the risks posed by climate change. Globally, our capabilities are the best that they have ever been. Scientific and technological advances continue to improve numerical weather and climate prediction. We now have the scientific skills to provide reliable warnings of extreme events and day-to-day weather forecasts that are more accurate, specific, and timely than ever before – and these skills continue to improve. However, they are often limited to developed countries, because NMHSs in developing countries lack the infrastructure to transfer and use these technologies.

Unfortunately, many governments have not gained a full understanding the societal value of the information and services that NMHSs should provide as a public service. One way to enhance government and broaden public understanding of what is at stake is to conduct socioeconomic studies that quantify the value of the public services resulting from NMHSs' strengthening. Such studies can also identify gaps in the current system and help prioritize elements of a modernization program. This process should be iterative so that stakeholders' expectations are realistic. Engaging all stakeholders, both internal and external to the NMHSs, is critical to the success of a modernization program – as emphasized by the WMO-led Global Framework for Climate Services. In Switzerland and the United States, studies show high economic returns from better NMHSs – with cost-benefit ratios of 1:4 to 1:6. And a recent World Bank study in Europe and Central Asia suggests cost-benefit ratios of 1:2 to 1:10.

Principle 2: The financing and scope of modernization must be sufficient to be transformative

Financing and scope of modernization must be enough to change NMHSs with poor infrastructure, declining observation networks and weak forecasting capability into public service organizations capable of delivering timely and useful information to mitigate weather, climate and water risks to the public and sensitive economic sectors. New capabilities incur additional operating and maintenance costs, which governments must consider up front to ensure the sustainability of the modernization effort beyond the initial work program.

The appropriate operating models need to be recognized explicitly to ensure that the NMHSs meet their public service and international obligations. Governments need to recognize and support their NMHSs to protect lives, livelihoods, and property as a critical, publicly funded mission. Policies that may restrict the free and open exchange of meteorological and hydrological data should be avoided, and the public sector responsibilities of the NMHSs should be emphasized. Selecting an operating model goes hand in hand with establishing appropriate legislation to institutionalize the agreed mission.

Principle 3: Clear legal and regulatory frameworks for providing weather, climate and water services increase effectiveness

Broad engagement across government departments, agencies, and other institutions is essential for success. To achieve success, countries need legal and regulatory frameworks for providing meteorological and hydrological warnings, as well as for delivering other weather, climate, and water services. Such frameworks will enable all stakeholders to understand their respective roles and responsibilities and to act accordingly. Coordination across government agencies is difficult, if not impossible, without it.

Principle 4: Large-scale modernization programs should specifically include three components:

  • Institutional strengthening, capacity building and implementation support. Strengthening NMHSs' legal and regulatory frameworks, improving their institutional performance as the main provider of weather, climate and hydrological information for the country, building the capacity of personnel and management, ensuring operability of future networks and supporting project implementation are all necessary to a large-scale modernization program.
  • Modernization of observation infrastructure and forecasting. This component includes modernizing the NMHSs' observation networks and communication and ICT systems, improving the meteorological and hydrological forecasting systems, and refurbishing offices and facilities.
  • Enhancement of the service delivery system. Such enhancement involves creating or strengthening the public weather services, climate services, and hydrological services and developing new information and value-added products for vulnerable communities and the main meteorological and hydrological dependent sectors. This component should include developing national frameworks for climate services as outlined in the Implementation Plan of the Global Framework for Climate Services.

The World Bank's experience suggests that NMHSs need help to transform their operations. They need expert guidance throughout the modernization process. Pairing advanced NMHSs with less advanced NMHSs helps sustain staff training and provides operational guidance.

Principle 5: Modernization of NMHSs should be considered within the wider regional and global context

It is important to understand which parts of the public meteorological infrastructure are best funded and operated at the local, national, regional, and global levels and to make investments accordingly. There is room for more efficient distribution of responsibilities among these levels. Technological developments make it possible to generate more useful products at regional and global levels, which can underpin the services that NMHSs provide at the country level.

WMO regional centres and specialized centres are an integral part of the information system. They provide NMHSs with operational guidance based on the products created by the global modeling centres. Strong regional and specialized centres can help sustain national modernization programs by supporting continuous technology infusion, thereby ensuring that the NMHSs are up to date. However, new financing mechanisms are needed to support the regional and global elements of the meteorological and hydrological system.

Principle 6: The World Bank, WMO and development partners have a vital role

The reason is simple: weather, climate and water services are a key public good, and better resilience to climate variability and change is a key element of a broader sustainable development and green growth agenda.

Scaling up support

The World Bank is beginning to scale up support through investment and development policy operations. For example, hydrometeorology forms a key pillar of all of the programs developed under the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience of the Climate Investment Funds. And countries are increasingly recognizing the importance of integrating better weather and climate service delivery into broader strategic development agendas.

Hydrometeorological programs are technically complex, but the World Bank has gained practical knowledge in modernizing NMHSs in middle-income and now low-income countries – although so far it has limited experience in the least developed countries. In 2012, new hydrometeorological modernization projects are being developed and implemented for Mexico, Mozambique, Nepal, the Russian Federation, Vietnam, the Republic of Yemen, Zambia, and other countries. In Nepal, the approach is one of the few examples of end-to-end modernization, focusing on institutional strengthening, modernization of the observation and forecasting systems, and service delivery. In addition, a dedicated assessment of the current capacity of hydrological services will be the focus of a separate study that the World Bank is planning to undertake jointly with the WMO. The hope is that the World Bank's growing modernization experience can help improve the design of future programs and underpin the place of hydromet strengthening in broader sustainable development agendas.

The World Bank believes that this initiative to modernize the global NHMSs infrastructure is a prerequisite to fulfilling the promise of the Global Framework for Climate Services.


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Hallegatte, Stéphane. 2012. "A Cost Effective Solution to Reduce Disaster Losses in Developing Countries: Hydrometeorological Services, Early Warning, and Evacuation." Policy Research Working Paper 6058, World Bank, Washington, DC

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———. 2012a. Inclusive Green Growth: The Pathway to Sustainable Development. Washington, DC: World Bank.

———. 2012b. Strengthening Weather and Climate Information and Decision Support Systems (WCIDS): The World Bank Portfolio 1995–2011. Washington, DC: World Bank.

———. 2012c. Toward a Green, Clean, and Resilient World for All: A World Bank Group Environmental Strategy 2012–2022. Washington, DC: World Bank.

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1 This article is based on the forthcoming book Weather and Climate Resilience: Effective Preparedness through National Meteorological and Hydrological Services. 2013 International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank.

2 According to Zillman (2005, 225), among the key challenges is a need to establish "a rigorous and comprehensive economic framework for meteorology at both the national and international level"; a need to achieve "universal recognition of basic meteorological and related environmental data as a global public good"; and a need to build "robust and mutually supportive partnerships between the public, private, and academic sectors of meteorology at both the national and international level."

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