Good luck in the storm, and thank goodness you knew it was coming.

by Daimen Hardie on March 26, 2014

'Monster' storm - 26/03/2014 (


As we Maritimers put a run on grocery stores and gas stations today, in anticipation of a much-hyped Nor’easter, a storm that promises to be memorable for either it's impact or its anticlimax, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of Community Forests International’s Pemba-based disaster preparedness work.  Whereas we Canadians have access to a near endless variety of weather forecast mediums, channels, and apps by which to receive warning of the coming ‘monster’ storm (I posted a link to a particularly elegant animation for you to check out below), Pembans rely on their own powers of observation alone to anticipate both the weather and disaster.  Community Forests International has an idea of how to change this though, to provide much needed weather forecasts and early warnings to the citizens of Pemba Island.  Please read on, and share your thoughts about our idea below.

Pemba is the northernmost island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, lying approximately 80 kilometres off the coast of mainland Tanzania in the Indian Ocean.  Like all small island regions, Zanzibar is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and the effects of climate change.  Flood and drought are the most common adversities, and the high social, economic, and environmental consequences often outweigh local capacity to successfully respond and recover [i, ii].  In 2005, the highest ever recorded rain event on Zanzibar destroyed over 1,000 homes and displaced over 10,000 people [iii].  Just 3 years later, in 2008, Zanzibar experienced a severe drought – the resulting food shortages affected 300,000 people [iv].

Increasing Pemba’s disaster preparedness is part and parcel of CFl’s work.  Climate change adaptation involves building more resilient communities, communities that are run on decentralized solar power, diversified food and tree systems, and stockpiled rainwater; all of which improve society’s ability to withstand both a changing climate and an immediate disaster.  But the work has only begun, there remain several gaps in Pemba’s disaster readiness that need to be addressed if communities are to respond successfully to their next misfortune.

One of the major gaps in preparedness throughout Zanzibar is the lack of an effective disaster communication system.  Normally early warning and disaster information is shared via ‘formal’ channels such as radio and television –  but the vast majority of Pembans don’t have access to these forms of communication.  So, how can early warning be effectively communicated to Pembans in the face of an imminent disaster?  In Pemba most information is shared directly, person to person, through ‘informal’ channels.  Can we leverage informal networks of communication to get the word out quickly across the island?  This is a question CFI has been asking for some time, and now we’re on to something.


CFI solar powered cellphone charge station, Pemba Island


According to the CIA there are over 27 million cellphone users in Tanzania [v].  Say what you will about that agency, but one thing they seem to have a mastery of is mobile phone networks.  In any case, although Pembans don’t have TV and radio to receive warnings they do have cellphones.  This is the foundation of CFI’s answer to disaster communications in Pemba.  The idea is to set up a custom web- and mobile phone-based ICT platform that will enable Zanzibar’s government to send up to fifty thousand (50,000) disaster warning text messages at a time to cell users across Pemba.  It is envisioned that this early warning broadcast will then ignite a chain reaction whereby Pembans quickly share the information further through their own personal networks.  The speed and reach of this approach promises to far exceed that of formal communication channels, and to effectively provide Pembans at large with fair warning in the event of a disaster.

CFI aims to pair this communication platform with a local weather forecast service.  The organization will collaborate with the Tanzanian Meteorological Agency (TMA) in this initiative and will also set up community-based weather stations in several rural Pemban villages.  The lead Pembans who join the text messaging service will gain access to on-demand local weather forecasting, lending a day-to-day practicality to the system for the farmers and fishermen who’s lives revolve around weather.  In the event of a disaster, this network of engaged users will be the first to know, and it will be their responsibility to share the news widely in a decentralized, peer-to-peer approach to disaster communications.

This idea is still taking shape, but CFI is excited by the possibilities.  What do you think?  Could this ‘informal’ approach be the answer to Pemba’s lack of effective early warning communications?  Is this an approach that could be employed more widely for disaster preparedness around the world? 

Good luck in the storm, and thank goodness you knew it was coming.


PS - That cool storm animation I mentioned above can be viewed here.


i Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. Report of the Secretary General, United Nations General Assembly (A/CONF.207/11). 03/10/2005. (pp. 9, 11).

ii Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters.  Extract from the final report of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (A/CONF.206/6). (pp. 5).

iii The Economics of Climate Change in Zanzibar. Technical Report.  05/2012.  (pp. 5).

iv East African Community Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Strategy (2012-2016).  EAC Secretariat.  10/2012. (pp. 6, 11, 28).

v Communications: Tanzania. World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 7 January 2014. Retrieved 26/03/2014. (

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