How meteorology is helping women lead disaster response in Vanuatu

Participants of the Women Wetem Weta workshop in Vanuatu held in March 2019. Photo by: Digicel

CANBERRA — In remote communities in the Pacific, women are often responsible for their families — including in an emergency. But they remain separated from leadership roles that help in preparing and responding to disasters.

In Vanuatu, which was identified by the “WorldRiskReport 2019” as having the highest disaster risk worldwide, building better leadership for women is essential in preparing communities. A new program is being implemented to provide women with this opportunity through the analysis and communication of weather events.

“When you can localize information, you can communicate impact on their terms,”

— Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, technical adviser, Shifting the Power Coalition

Women Wetem Weta allows women to study the weather patterns, receive information from national meteorological and national disaster management offices, and develop messages in their local language which can be disseminated within their communities. The women are members of Women I Tok Tok Tugeta — a forum that gathers women leaders from across the islands of Vanuatu to discuss issues of concern to them.

SMS messaging is being used in the early stages of the program to deliver this communication at scale, helping women prepare their communities for what the weather will deliver. And a two-way communication process with meteorological and disaster offices enables these women to engage with the national system to explain their needs — and become leaders in disaster planning and adaptation.

Providing a localized analysis of weather data

Women Wetem Weta is a project that was adapted for Vanuatu by Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, technical adviser at Shifting the Power Coalition, based on the Fiji Women’s Weather Watch — which she created to fill an emerging gap she saw in broadcast information.

“When the information came out from the weather office, the national media was really the key communication platform when it comes to weather warnings,” she explained to Devex. “When I worked for Fiji Broadcasting, we would go into emergency and follow steps to put information out. The change in broadcast format has gone to a more commercialized approach with a weather snapshot. There is no longer a public service intent to explain.”

After Tropical Cyclone Winston in Fiji, Bhagwan-Rolls said communication of weather information was raised as a “clear challenge” — while information was being provided on the radio, remote communities couldn’t understand what it meant. Specifically, what it meant for them.

“The penny dropped for me when I heard an example out of the Solomon Islands,” she said. “They were able to see in a pilot project how weather patterns around coastal communities were actually helping them get better prepared in the spread of malaria.”

By analyzing weather data, they could identify which communities living around mangroves would need mosquito nets.

“When you can localize information, you can communicate impact on their terms,” Bhagwan-Rolls added.

Vanuatu is a country that faces a range of natural disasters and has found similar gaps between the communication of weather data and its ability to use it on the ground. Women Wetem Weta aims to fill that gap in the public service. 

“It’s not just about communicating the big disasters,” Bhagwan-Rolls explained. “Women Wetem Weta is providing information in terms of the prolonged drought in Vanuatu. Women are thinking about the crops they should be planting, how to ensure there is water storage, and implications for health.”

Making an impact

In the year Women Wetem Weta has been rolled out in Vanuatu, an immediate impact has been the ability to bridge the gap between remote women leaders and the national systems. The first workshop was conducted in March last year. Women were able to speak to Vanuatu broadcasting to understand transmission services and what was in the pipeline for the national broadcaster. They discussed their needs for communication. And they visited the meteorological office to understand weather patterns and cyclone tracking.

The women come from outlying islands as well as Porta Villa, Bhagwan-Rolls explained. “For a woman from a remote community to be in that place, [it] empowers her to go back to her community and explain what she has learned — and help lead them,” she said. “Brokering that space is empowering women leadership.”

But she said that information itself empowers women — the earlier information reaches them, the better prepared they are. Firewood, food, water, and children can all be organized in advance.

“That takes time. When you add another layer in terms of disability, it is about how the information is accessible but also how to assist persons with a disability to be able to think about the stage they should evacuate. It is important to have the power to be a part of the decision-making process.”

Progressing the agenda on women’s leadership

By June last year, a small group of women had become equipped with mobile phone technology and started work on communicating weather analysis, with ActionAid Vanuatu acting as the information hub.

While bulk SMS messaging is the initial method being used to deliver community-specific information, the women have identified other channels that would like to utilize in their communications — including radio, a comic strip campaign, and more.

“One of the interesting learning[s] for me on community media was the women have identified community notice boards as a way to localize information,” Bhagwan-Rolls said. “I think this is another great way to create visibility on what these women are doing for their community.”

The work on empowering women through weather analysis and communication will also be broadened for the wider Pacific through the Shifting the Power Coalition — a program to help young women become emergency response leaders. It will connect and train young women and women living with disability on climate services, with the aim of influencing decision-making in this space.

And more is yet to come.

“Once you start Women Wetem Weta you just continue and keep building upon that,” Bhagwan-Rolls said.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.