5,000 people drown in Lake Victoria each year. A single text message could help save them.

Lake Victoria is a rich fishing ground in eastern Africa, but it’s also stormy — very stormy. In fact, lightning has been recorded 4 out of every 5 days of the year in Kampala, the Ugandan capital city situated along the lake’s northern edge.

And without reliable, accessible weather forecasts, these storms can catch fishermen and other boaters off guard. About 5,000 people drown every year because of them.

Storms like this can be deadly. Image from Martin Richardson/YouTube.

“There are people who need this information, but because of poverty they can’t afford it,” Frank Annor, field director for the Trans-African HydroMeterological Observatory (TAHMO), told New Scientist. “People’s lives could change for the better if they are given some knowledge about the weather.”

TAHMO is an organization dedicated to improving weather forecasting in Africa. They’re already setting up a huge network of weather stations across the continent. Now they’ll help get that information to the people who need it.

A new text message program the organization is set to unveil in eastern Africa could help save lives.

Image from Ken Banks/Flickr.

More than 19 million Ugandans have cellphones. They’re not usually smartphones, so no Internet or complex apps, but they do get text messages. That’s how some of them will be able to get that on-demand weather information they need.

Over the next two years, TAHMO will roll out a text message program that can warn people of incoming storms. People can call or text the service to hear weather forecasts. They can also opt-in to get push messages whenever the system detects and approaching storm. The messages will be free to users.

The program will start in Uganda, and the service should be operational by April.

The text messages will be part of a larger program called 3-2-1. The system is a research project led by TAHMO in collaboration with the Uganda National Meteorological Authority and partnered with a number of different organizations such as Human Network International (HNI).

The text message platform was developed by HNI and Airtel, a cell phone provider. At first, only the 8-million Airtel subscribers will have access to the program, but TAHMO hopes to expand it to all carriers. If everything goes according to plan, they can extend the service to people in nearby countries as well.

The undertaking comes after TAHMO was selected by the Global Resilience Project, which helped give them funding to start it.

Similar text message warning programs have been unveiled in the past, but TAHMO’s weather monitoring stations set it apart.

The stations will power an incredible information-gathering network.

This is an older version. Installing them at schools helps protect the stations and also provides a learning opportunity for the kids. Image from TAHMO/Flickr.

Built to be cheap and low-maintenance, these weather stations will measure temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed, and rainfall. TAHMO wants to set up 20,000 of them across Africa.

The new generation of stations are designed to be as robust as possible. They have no moving parts or open cavities, so things can’t break and critters can’t get in. They have both batteries and small solar panels, so they won’t run out of power, either.

This is more like what the new stations will look like. Image from TAHMO/Flickr.

TAHMO hopes to install many of these stations at local schools, but the stations can be placed anywhere they can get a mobile phone signal. They’ll use the mobile phone service to send the information back to weather forecasters. The forecasters can use this extra information to make weather predictions a lot more accurate and timely.

A simple, clever idea can make a difference in countless lives.

The weather data wouldn’t just be useful for fishermen. Private companies partnered with TAHMO could use it to offer services to other people as well. For example, though farmers aren’t usually in danger of drowning, a bad storm could damage crops.

A rainstorm did this to a corn crop in India. Image from IITA/Flickr.

Also, at a larger scale, farmer’s insurance companies might be interested in TAHMO’s more accurate weather data because it could help them offer better insurance coverage for farmers. Construction companies, schools, and airports might also benefit from this data.

The two ideas — better weather monitoring and early warnings — are a magical mix.

Better data, safer boating, and a clever use of technology? Sign me up.

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