National Hydrological Services - Impacts due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global public health emergency and placed various levels of restrictions on citizens around the world. This has also impacted the collection of Earth observation data and the delivery of important services in the sector of meteorology, hydrology and climatology. A preliminary WMO survey conducted with the focal points of National Hydrological Services (NHSs) of WMO Members scoped out COVID-19 impacts on day-to-day operational hydrological services – data collection, observation, modelling, forecasting and early warning information – as well as the measures taken to overcome these.

Field maintenance works
Field maintenance works for Pasig-Marikina River Basin, Philippines (above) and Costa Rica (below).

The 47 responses received confirmed that the NHS in developing countries are most impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. This is mainly due to the restrictions imposed on staff responsible for carrying out observations and measurements, maintenance of stations, 24/7 operation of data and forecasting centres, etc. During the first COVID lockdown, most NHS staff worked remotely from home. Very few “essential” staff were permitted into the office with protective equipment, such as face masks, and personal safety measures to follow, such as social distancing and disinfection. Even fewer went out in the field to make measurements and maintain hydrological stations.

The Hydrological Advisor for Argentina, Mr Mariano Re of the National Water Institute, noted, “The development of a robust open-source hydrological system allowed us to work normally from home. When we experienced a water crisis in our main river, the Paraná, during the pandemic, several webinars and media briefings were carried out to disseminate the information.” While the Hydrological Advisor of India, Mr Goverdhan Prasad, indicated that their solution was to have “Most Senior level officers working at the office, while half of the junior level officers and staff work at the office on alternate days.”

Some respondents highlighted the difficulties of carrying-out urgent adjustments to data transmission and to the delivery of hydrological products when most staff are working from home. Mr Darko Borojevic, Hydrological Advisor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, stated that “Measurements in transboundary rivers were not possible. Installation of new stations and all activities related to the international projects for transboundary rivers were postponed.”

Most respondents emphasized the need for technical assistance from WMO to support the timely preparation and provision of forecasts and warnings to national stakeholders and citizens. The majority requested further sharing of knowledge, while 38% requested financial assistance – about 50% expect budget cuts this year or next. Some also asked for capacity development, infrastructure support and Internet support. The sharing of knowledge concerned:

  • the facilitation of transboundary hydrometeorological information sharing
  • knowledge/experience sharing between different NHSs
  • quality management system for the NHSs.

“WMO could provide financial support for the Internet connection, training, videoconferencing equipment, remote technical support for monitoring, improve forecasting, and the sharing experiences or solutions from other countries to mitigate COVID-19 impacts.” Stated Mr Mohamed Housseini Ibrahim, Hydrological Advisor of Niger.

These initial responses will help WMO to tailor its support for NHSs during the ongoing pandemic.


WMO activities during the pandemic

WMO has continued to actively strengthening NHSs through projects, such as Flash Flood Guidance System (FFGS) and Volta Flood and Drought Management (VFDM), and initiatives, such as Climate Risk and Early Warning System (CREWS) components of Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Dominican Republic, West Africa, Togo. These develop hydrological forecasting and early warning system and provide capacity development through e-learning and webinars. For example, one webinar highlighted progress in Integrated Riverine Flood Forecasting for the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in the Regional Association for North America, Central America and the Caribbean (RA IV) and their bilateral partners. While a first online training on riverine flood forecasting was carried out in July-August with the support of Dominican Republic’s National Partner INDHRI.

In a survey of more than 60 Members worldwide using FFGS, 42 respondents from 32 countries indicated that the real-time FFGS components functioned without any significant disturbances during the pandemic.

87% of the respondents were able to prepare and issue flash flood and dry season warnings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The WMO FFGS team is currently developing online training modules for users.


Strengthening Hydrological Services and value of preparedness

COVID-19 has significantly impacted operational hydrological services activities; however, the ways NHS and individuals are responding – the successes, challenges and lesson-learned – may provide a new pathway for responding to future multi-hazard disasters. The crisis has brought the need for, and value of, preparedness to the fore – more investment is required in preparedness to build resilience when faced with health emergencies and adapt to and mitigate the impacts climate change.

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