Profiles in leadership
The South African Weather Service provides more than the daily weather report; its work touches every aspect of life and the economy.
The weather touches every aspect of life and the economy says SA Weather Service CEO Jerry Lengoasa
Jerry Lengoasa, the Chief Executive Officer of the South African Weather Service (SAWS), sits at his desk in his office in Pretoria. Through the window behind him the service's flag flaps in the gusting wind.
Knowledgeable, Lengoasa is eager to point out that the SAWS provides more than the daily weather report. It is a technology-driven service that touches every aspect of life and the economy. “As I tell people, often, there is no sector of the economy that is not affected by weather and climate, so our potential reach has quite a wide scope.”
He adds: “We are working towards becoming an institution that is able to touch every person in every sector of the economy.”
Helping municipalities monitor air quality
The agency's newest responsibility is to help monitor air quality in municipalities around the country. Like so much the SAWS does, this too is technology driven, and something most municipalities struggle to do. It has fallen to the SAWS to help municipalities with their monitoring networks.
In parts of the country, air quality is an issue, so monitoring is important from a health point of view, he says. Also, in terms of formulating policy, data is important.
The agency has begun to analyse the systems being used by different municipalities. “Most of the networks don't talk to each other because the data acquisition technologies are not necessarily standardised.”
In some cases systems have to be rebuilt and people trained to use the new technology. New sensors and data loggers that will record and transmit to a central point is all part of a system that Lengoasa would like to see cover the country. The SAWS, he says, is hoping to build monitoring networks that ‘talk' to
“There are different levels of assistance, data acquisition and distribution, for instance. There's also data base management. While we do the early part of that value chain, the responsibility for the imposition and enforcement of policy remains with the Department of Environmental Affairs.”
The SAWS is the most innovative on the continent and measures up to services around the world. It is the only service in Africa with the capability to run multi-ensemble models, where weather models are taken from multiple sources and run through a super computer. This gives South Africa the edge when it comes to the ability to predict weather patterns and build forecasts.
The agency is also responsible for an extensive network of data acquisition and observation tools across the region. This includes radar, a very specialised and expensive piece of equipment, which allows the agency to detect storms early, Lengoasa points out. “This is important when it comes to servicing all sectors of the economy. Be it marine or aviation, any sector of the economy that needs to have near real time information on weather conditions.”
This, Lengoasa points out, is the commercial end of the government service.The SAWS's mandate is built on a commercial platform, informed by the public good. Commercially, for example, the SAWS sells services or raw data to golf courses relating to lightning and lightning propensity. Their commercial activity is mostly non-regulated.
Services provided to the aviation and marine sector, on the other hand, are regulated because the SAWS is a public entity. “These services are offered on a cost recovery basis. We provide a very specific service to the aviation sector, for example. Our weather radar is mostly located at airports, it's a very specialised instrument, and it's a service we don't provide to anyone else.”
The same technology serves the public good as well. The information is less complex than that provided to commercial users. “Your daily temperatures, rainfall predictions – they have to be accessible because they are important to saving lives, saving livelihoods and property. From a disaster risk management perspective, access to that information is absolutely crucial.”
Africa dealing with climate change
The work of the SAWS is built on a technological foundation, it is this that enables the agency to share information and data with meteorological services across the globe. This data is used to build predictive weather models for the entire planet. “We are part of a global community.”
Lengoasa adds that it's not just South Africa that benefits from the work of the South African Weather Service. Information is shared widely across the South African Development Community (SADC) region, a benefit for countries that are unable to spend money on modelling centres or the super computers required to create accurate weather models.
This has allowed weather services in SADC countries to build closer relationships that have helped improve the accuracy of data collected. And, he adds, as technology evolves, and more and reliable information is needed to create sophisticated and reliable models, South Africa has taken the lead in the region.
“With the rest of the continent, we are making progress toward having a fully automated observation and data acquisition platform and networks. This will allow us to manage things remotely and also allow us to do some sophisticated work in relation to prediction and forecasting.”
It is important that Africa builds an accurate weather prediction system, he says. Africa will bear the brunt of changing weather systems. Even though the continent contributes the lowest level of emissions, underdevelopment means the continent will suffer the most. The continent needs a strong predictive capability to
“There is no sector
of the economy that is not affected by weather and
allow communities to prepare for shorter rainfall seasons, longer droughts and higher temperatures.
“Our model is fairly weak for the winter season but very strong for the summer season. That capability, just across the border, is non-existent. When you drive across the border and see these vagaries of drought, when you see it in real life, you realise we have an obligation to try and help those entities – our compatriots and equivalents such as the weather services of Malawi, Tanzania and so forth.”
Before returning to take over as chief executive at the national Weather Service, Lengoasa was deputy secretary general of the World Meteorological Society in Geneva. During his time there, the society initiated a project that urged weather services with the capability to run models to provide their results to services without the capacity. “We are able to do that because we have the capability and we are able to offer a product that is ready and fit for purpose for the forecaster that sits in a service that doesn't have that.”
Cooperation is the future of the continent's response to the effects of climate change, whether it is humanitarian responses to extreme weather or designing infrastructure that will withstand change. Lengoasa sees the benefits the SAWS team can bring to partnerships. “We will work in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, and with research institutions like the National Research Foundation. They'll become critical partners in how we tailor our products – data and services – so they'll be fit for purpose.”
Following a strange wind
Lengoasa has a Master's degree in climatology, the first black South African to attain the honour. He graduated from the University of Fort Hare, where he majored in geography. Geography, he says, interested him because it was a mix of earth sciences and social sciences, a good general field of study while he decided what he wanted to concentrate on.
“At Fort Hare there is this peculiar wind that always blows – a warm wind coming down the mountain. That led me to an interest in climatology. But I was in university because my interest in geography grew from the influence of very enthusiastic teachers.”
Armed with his degree, he got a teaching position in atmospheric sciences at Wits University. As an academic, he was determined to copy the teachers that helped him develop a love for learning. He worked hard not to be someone who saw a pay cheque rather than the eager minds desperate for knowledge.
“I remember we had a physics teacher in matric, purportedly a teacher. There were four or five of us who wanted the class. He walked in, opened the textbook, looked at the first page and walked out. That was the end of physics in my school.”
Geography offered a similar experience he says. He was in matric the year after the 1976 student uprising. Teachers were bused in from the suburbs and out again at the end of the school day. “The guy we had would transcribe the text book onto the chalkboard and ask us to take notes. Five of us split from that set up and basically became self-taught. I think three of the five of us managed to pass and get into university.”
At university, motivated to ensure that no other children had to endure the same disinterested teachers, Lengoasa intended to work toward a teaching degree. “I registered for a teaching degree, but was hauled out of the lecture hall by the professor of geography who decided I belonged in his department and insisted I come and do an honours degree.”
Chief Executive Officer of the South African
Weather Service Jerry Lengoasa.