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New project to detect lightning

Lightening, they say, does not strike twice.  But as Rose Baliraine testifies, it can strike the same heart three times and leave behind a soul traumatised. ARTHUR MATSIKO reports about a project to limit disaster from strikes of lightning.

With her left cheek pegged in her palm, and the right hand rubbing her eyes, Rose Baliraine mumbles memories of the cold night when lightning burnt her husband and first-born son dead.

Rose Baliraine clears bushes around her husband and son's graveyard

It was June 28, 2011 and Moses Baliraine and his son Joseph Buyinza were in the living room waiting for supper which Rose was preparing at their home in Bugonza village, Namugongo sub-county, Kaliro district.

“It was about to rain and I asked my children to go to the main house. After a few minutes, lightning struck and hit my son,” says Rose, a mother of seven.

Moments later, lightning struck again and her husband fell.

“It hit for the third time and injured one of my daughters.”

Rose, 42, ran to a nearby clinic but they couldn’t handle lightening victims. This forced her to call her brother-in-law, who drove the casualties to Iganga hospital.

“They [doctors] started by checking my son. I had hope that he was still alive but the doctors told me that he had died. They checked my husband and told me the same,” she says tearfully. “It is a story which I have unsuccessfully struggled to get off my head.”

According to the book Lightning Science & Lightning Protection, Uganda has the highest number of human and animal casualties of lightning globally every year. In 2012 and 2013, Uganda lost over 205 primary school pupils to lightning, whereas 160 were lost in 2014 alone. Between January and September 2015 at least 30 students were struck by lightning in Iganga district alone.

Rose could not have known that lightning was due that evening. But modern technology can detect lightning and people can be warned to minimize risk.

This is why the Uganda National Meteorological Authority (UNMA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have joined hands to strengthen climate information and early-warning systems. Their initiative would, among other things, detect lightning and inform people to move away from known lighting hotspots.

This month, five Total Solutions Automatic Weather Stations (TSAWS) were installed in Kaliro, Sironko, Napak, Kotido and Otuke districts. The project manager, Pascal Onegin Okello, told us that these five districts are “more prone to lightning than other places” in Uganda.

LIGHTNING WARNING

The TSAWS were procured under the Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems project for Climate Resilient Development and Adaptation to Climate Change in Uganda. Launched on March 21, 2014, the project is part of a UNDP initiative funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in 11 African countries.

“Insufficient coverage of meteorological and hydrological observation stations has resulted in limited monitoring of vulnerable regions and populations,” the project document says. 

“For example, drought conditions are not monitored for agricultural lands, intense rainfall is not monitored in areas prone to landslides and flooding, and rapid rises in rivers are not identified as a precursor to flooding.”

The project aims at having a functional network monitoring stations that can provide timely information to avert weather and climate change-related disasters such as the lightning strike at the Baliraine family five years ago.

Technicians installing a weather station on a telephone mast in Sironko

Solomon Mangeni, the manager in charge of engineering and ICT at UNMA, told The Observer that the TSAWS have censors which detect wind, sunshine, rainfall and “the best of all, lightning, which is a new innovation”.

The device has a box which receives data from the censors and sends it to the wireless transmitter which carries the signals through the normal telephone wireless technology. The data is then automatically sent to the automatic message switching system which has been installed at UNMA headquarters in Kampala.

“This data is analysed and interpreted by meteorologists and can be integrated into weather modeling systems out of which weather forecasts, predictions and alerts can be made and issued to the public through the media,” Mangeni said.

He added that UNMA has a dedicated weather studio which records weather forecasts and sends the information to TV, radio stations and newspapers.

Had this technology been installed and put to use in 2011, the Baliraine family might have moved away from their house after hearing a lightning alert over the radio.

Like in many poor countries, Uganda’s weather forecasts are not the most reliable. It is not unusual for the people to carry umbrellas and heavy jackets expecting rain, only to face sizzling heat.  Mangeni puts the blame on the media.

“[But] most TV and radio stations issue out weather information which is not issued to them by UNMA,” he said, adding that the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has asked UNMA to write to the stations about the issue.

GLOBAL SIGNIFICANCE

According to George George, country support specialist for alternative technologies for the UNDP and GEF, there is a global need, specifically in Africa, to enhance the availability of climate information for better decision-making.

“What we see in Africa is a large number of deaths specifically due to lightning and climate-related phenomena,” George says. “So, what we have realised is that these countries are unable to take action mainly because they do not have the information to do that.”

The data which Uganda would generate will contribute to the global network of at least 8,000 censors, most of them in the United States and Europe.

“What you will find is that once there is continuous stream of data, the forecasting ability starts to become more precise [because] the more data you collect, the better you are able to forecast and the better the decisions you are able to make.”

However, the project, the first of its kind in Uganda, faces challenges. Project manager Pascal Okello told The Observer that the weather equipment from various weather stations, especially the ones on the ground, has always been vandalized.

“That is why this new technology is being installed on the telephone masts because there is security, electricity and [the] Internet,” Okello explained.

For the ground stations, vandals often target the solar panels which are supposed to power the equipment. He added that now they are working closely with the administration of various districts to provide more security for the equipment.

Rose Baliraine, who I found clearing bushes around the graves of her husband and son had not heard about the $4 million TSAWS project. She was not even aware there was technology that could have warned her about the impending tragedy. When I tell her about the project, Baliraine first exclaims in surprise, and then keeps quiet for a few reflective seconds.

“So, how would this work?” she asks.

Baliraine appeals to authorities to sensitize communities so that at least every household could own a radio and receive alerts to avert danger.

Besides the pain of losing loved ones, Baliraine has had to live with mockery from the neighbours who culturally perceive lightning as a curse. Besides accurate weather information and warnings, she hopes the new technology will help demystify lightning, and allow her to heal.

marthur448@gmail.com

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd