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.

Public Sector Manager - - Contents -

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

one another.

“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.”

Com­mer­cial plat­form

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

cli­mate.”

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.

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