The ongoing global pandemic has demonstrated that WMO is much more than the official scientific body of the United Nations on the global climate, weather and water – it is a family that pulls together when times get hard. The WMO Secretariat’s initial survey to assess the impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on its Members’ operational capability contained a few supplementary questions, the responses to which highlighted that fact. One question asked, “Would your National Meteorological and Hydrological Service (NMHS) be able to provide support to other NMHS’s if needed during the pandemic?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “Yes!”
And they were true to their promise. When Cyclone Amphan formed in the Bay of Bengal in the middle of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Meteorological Administration (CMA) reached out to their colleagues in the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) to offer additional modelling support. Following an earthquake in late March in Croatia, which damaged some of the key Croatian Meteorological and Hydrological Service (DHMZ) infrastructure, the European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasting (ECMWF), supported by European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), successfully backed up the DHMZ production capability thereby ensuring continuity of service in the months that followed.
The willingness and enthusiasm of WMO Members to lend a helping hand and support their colleagues did not just arise with the pandemic. The esprit de corps in WMO has been nurtured and strengthened throughout the 70-year history of the Organization and existed already in its predecessor, the International Meteorological Organization. The family approach flows throughout WMO and is clearly visible in all areas of its work.
Bilateral and multilateral support
In times of need, help is always at hand. This was apparent during and after Cyclone Idai in 2019 when several NMHSs provided support to their colleagues in Mozambique. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa when the Sierra Leone Meteorological Department (SLMD) came under unprecedented strain, colleagues from the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NMA) stepped in to provide web-based support to ensure that services to the local authorities and population were maintained. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, MeteoFrance established a dedicated forecasting service for their Haitian colleagues to ensure that vital forecasts and warnings remained available throughout the response and recovery phase. These bilateral partnerships are one example of how the WMO family works together and there are many more.
At the multilateral level, Ireland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA) have a formal collaboration mechanism that activates when a tropical storm has the potential to threaten Irish and UK waters. Ahead of their respective Tropical Cyclone seasons, Members come together by region to ensure that collective response, mitigation and mutual support plans remain suitable for the season ahead. At the more operational level, World Meteorological Centres (WMCs), Regional Forecast Support Centres and the network of Regional Specialized Meteorological Centres (RSMC) provide analysis and guidance down from one level to the other and synthesize these for their national level colleagues.
Support for humanitarian efforts
Members also work together to support wider crisis response. In the northern hemisphere winter of 2015/2016, thousands of refugees fled from Syria to Western Europe – a distance of over 1 000 kilometres. WMO Members from across Europe, particularly those in South East Europe, came together to provide United Nations relief agencies with weather forecasts and information that was critical to their response mechanisms. But probably more important was the very specific local knowledge they could share on the likely impacts on the ground of the forecast conditions. This additional insight would have been more difficult to come by without their expertise and local knowledge.
A further example is the ARISTOTLE Partnership through which NMHSs in Europe, in partnership with colleagues in the geophysical science area, provide the European Commission’s Emergency Response and Coordination Centre (ERCC) with a dedicated 24/7 Multi-Hazard Emergency Response Service.
In addition, the WMO family supports several national and regional forecast-based finance and early action initiatives. To do this, they work in partnership with governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as United Nations agencies to ensure that decision-makers and local communities receive impact-based severe weather advice in time to act. For example, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD) and the national Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre provided technical support to the United Nations Humanitarian Country Team (including OCHA, WFP, FAO, UNFPA, etc.) and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society to successfully conduct anticipatory action during the 2020 monsoon floods. This enabled the United Nations to release US$ 5.2 million of Central Emergency Response Funds (CERF) in record time, thereby supporting those in desperate need.
NMHSs also come together with experts from other technical disciplines in Regional Climate Outlook Forum (RCOF) to produce consensus seasonal forecast statements. These help governments and development partners to plan risk mitigation actions in advance of events and thereby reduce the risks that crisis situations develop.
Invest in both partnerships and services
These are just a few examples of the many areas of collaboration and close cooperation in the WMO family. This cooperation enhances the provision of authoritative weather, climate and water-related information to the public and to policy and other decision-makers responsible for ensuring that vital services are maintained, and people are kept safe no matter what the challenge.
What makes this collaboration work? What are its key characteristics? And more importantly, how does one maintain the formal and sometimes informal support and collaboration architecture?
One common essential characteristic is the equal investment of both time and energy in creating and maintaining partnerships and services. In our complex world, every institution has its own vision statement, goals and strategic plans. As these are rarely the same, every partner will have a slightly different “view” on the world, which will influence their engagements and partnerships. Therefore, clear and transparent communication channels have to be established. Over time, with renewed contact and exchanges, personal relationships develop, and trust is built. Thus, partners feel freer to air their ideas and solutions are found to assist each other to move forward together. But the primary ingredient remains an equal investment in developing partnerships and service delivery.
The development of sustainable partnerships can be a difficult challenge at the best of times – it is an even greater challenge during the COVID-19 crisis. We no longer meet in person and there are fewer opportunities to build relationships through informal conversations over a coffee or a cold drink. There are no quiet discussions in the margins of a meeting to work out issues, thus no chance to explain what you “actually” mean when you make a formal statement on behalf your organization during an official meeting. In the COVID world, everything is arranged ahead of time, Teams, Webex and other video conferencing platforms are the order of the day (I’ve currently got 10 conference call “apps” installed on my phone). The building of strong ties requires harder work and even more time – maybe the time saved from travelling around the world on “planes, trains and automobiles”?
With the WMO Secretariat as facilitator, WMO Members have worked together through good and bad times. Naturally, like in any partnership, there have been arguments and disagreements. However, over the last 70 years, our community has continued to move forward, advancing science and producing better and more timely services. One of the most significant achievements of this family is the principle by which observational data of all Members is freely shared to feed the data hungry global weather forecasting machine.
As we continue to move forward, the development of the Global Multi-Hazard Alert System (GMAS) will add authoritative warnings into this expanding information goldmine. Our colleagues in the United Nations and humanitarian agencies are incorporating ever more impact-based hydrometeorological information in their decision-making architecture and WMO is maintaining momentum on developing better products to assist them. The WMO Coordination Mechanism (WCM) will ensure that the expertise and insight of our meteorological family are readily available to serve the United Nations and humanitarian efforts.
However, as we look forward to the next 70 years, we can see a world in which climate change has increased hydrometeorological risks and made populations ever more vulnerable. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the WMO family “rolls up its sleeves” to deliver the services and advice that will help to save lives and protect livelihoods. In looking back on this article and reflecting on my own 30+ years working in the hydrometeorological arena, I have every confidence that our WMO family will be more than equal to this challenge.