Forecasting to save lives

Our work has resulted in a big step-up for the capability of these NGOs and the Start Fund
- Erica Thompson
Karachi, Pakistan, from above. Bilhassan88

LSE research is being used to improve understanding of and responses to forecasts of extreme heat in Pakistan

“It can obviously be much more effective to act to protect lives before a humanitarian crisis strikes rather than wait to clean up the aftermath,” explains Dr Erica Thompson from LSE’s Centre for the Analysis of Time Series. “But NGOs are cautious about mobilising resources, and to potentially be seen ‘wasting’ money, unless they can confidently use forecasts of potential disasters, such as heat waves.”

And extreme heat can be deadly. In June 2015, around 2000 people died from dehydration and heatstroke in the south eastern province of Sindh in Pakistan and its capital city Karachi when a heatwave struck.

Yet in 2017, despite it being a record-breaking year with temperatures climbing as high as 51°C in some areas of Pakistan, a heatwave alert was raised too late to release additional international humanitarian funding because NGOs were uncertain about how to use the weather forecasts.

With enough advance warning, NGOs and the government can warn the public about the effects of extreme heat and remind them what to do. Basic information like reminding people to stay in the shade, drink enough water and what the symptoms of heatstroke look like, can be lifesaving. Getting this information to more isolated, rural areas can be particularly important.

Erica Thompson, whose own expertise includes how to evaluate climate information to help decision-making, has been working on a project to help improve decision-makers understand forecasts in Pakistan.

Her work is funded by NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council), and is in partnership with the Start Network – a group of humanitarian NGOs which includes Oxfam, Islamic Relief and Tearfund.

She worked with representatives of the Network’s NGOS in Pakistan to collaboratively produce a briefing on heatwave risk and predictability. This was produced in April 2018 in advance of the heatwave season.

“It’s only seven to ten days before an extreme heat event that we have enough information to raise an anticipatory warning and start meaningful preparations. Five days ahead we know we can confidently confirm the forecast and take actions to reduce the potential humanitarian impact,” says Thompson.

“The briefing also highlights that that it’s not only high temperatures which are dangerous. High temperatures which continue overnight and for several days, and high humidity levels are also reduce people’s ability to cope with heat.”

The briefing means that for the first time, Start members in Pakistan have a shared understanding of where they should look for quality heatwave forecasts, how far in advance they can start accurately predicting a heatwave and how to use the data that’s available. 

This meant that when temperatures began to spike in Sindh province in May 2018, the Start Network was able to respond early.

Before temperatures reached deadly levels, £70,000 was released from the Start Fund to support anticipatory humanitarian action.

The fund is owned and managed by the Start Network to provide rapid financing to act in anticipation of impending humanitarian crises and filling a critical gap in financing.

The NGOs Muslim Aid, ACF, ACTED and Trocaire are currently implementing activities in partnership in Sindh province which complement the existing heatwave plans developed by local and national government authorities. This includes support to increase awareness of heatwave risks and mitigation among the district level authorities.

“Our work has resulted in a big step-up for the capability of these NGOs and the Start Fund. The strong technical basis of the briefing gave the alerting agencies more confidence to act in advance of the temperatures peaking this year,” says Thompson.