Community co-design for Early Warning Systems in Tanzania

Community co-design for Early Warning Systems in Tanzania – a conversation with Sunayana Sen, Programme Manager at Resurgence 

Informal urban settlements in Dar es Salaam 

Dar es Salaam, located in eastern Tanzania, is a coastal city with a population of around 4.5 million. It is the country’s largest city, as well as its economic hub.

In Dar es Salaam, over 70 per cent of households live in unplanned or informal structures. Informal urban settlements are highly exposed and susceptible to extreme weather events such as flooding, increased temperatures, droughts, and extreme and inconsistent rainfall. These events can have impacts including loss of life, reduced productivity, displacement and negative health effects. These factors are magnified by other risk factors such as high population density, structurally unsafe houses, poor building materials, and inadequate sanitation and solid waste management. 

In addition, these communities have limited access to information on weather and the climate, as well as essential services such as health care, and have low-income levels.

Weather forecasting in Tanzania, as in much of East Africa, is typically focused on specific sectors such as agriculture and aviation as opposed to the needs of urban residents, meaning there is a disconnect between the information produced and the urban population that uses it. With the rapid urban growth of cities, leading to an increased need for weather and climate information, the country’s National Meteorological and Hydrological Services needed to work with urban communities to co-develop information that was relevant for urban spaces.

The DARAJA (Developing Risk Awareness through Joint Action) system 

DARAJA, which means “bridge” in Swahili, is a service and partnership that aims to improve weather and climate information services, including early extreme weather warnings for urban users.

Adopting a systems-wide approach, DARAJA builds “bridges” and operational partnerships between critical actors in the co-design of the products, dissemination channels and feedback loops for weather forecasts and extreme weather alerts.

Rather than viewing residents as the last mile of a linear system, we took a dynamic information ecosystem approach, with users in the central role. This has resulted in a system that is user-centric, inclusive and collaborative, and ultimately produces information that populations at high risk can use.

Understanding the people at the centre 

The purpose of the baseline research was to design user-centric services. We wanted the research findings to lead the design. In Dar es Salaam, we implemented DARAJA over two-and-a-half years, spending approximately six months at the beginning carrying out our baseline research and initiating relationships.

After an initial round of research, we worked with community members to test and revise our survey questions and translate them into Swahili. We hired local enumerators and trained them to conduct surveys. We then took the research findings to the stakeholders in a multi-stakeholder workshop setting to analyse and validate them.

First and foremost, we found that many people were not able to access forecasts or early warnings. Either they didn't know where to actively look for them, or weren’t even passively receiving the information in any useful way. 

Secondly, they weren’t able to understand the forecasts or early warnings. Even those who could access them, [SS1] had difficulty [LH2] understanding them, due to too much scientific or meteorological jargon. 

Language itself was also an issue. Swahili is the predominant language in Dar es Salaam and, while many residents speak and understand English fairly well, Swahili is the language that they’re most comfortable with. 

The relevance of the information was also important. Before DARAJA, the forecasts issued were for the entire city of Dar es Salaam. However, cities have microclimates, and temperature or rainfall forecasts differ for different parts of the city. Users are therefore more interested in understanding what the weather will look like for their neighbourhood. Citywide forecasts mean that they are not able to take specific actions that are relevant to them, or can lead them to think the information is inaccurate and therefore not see these forecasts as credible. 

Because forecasts were previously for a large area, it did probably rain in some other area of the city – but it didn’t rain in your area. This does not necessarily mean the forecast is inaccurate. Then there’s the issue of probability, and the community’s understanding of it, when it comes to rain.

Thirdly, we saw a bit of an issue around the use of weather information to take action. I think that’s really the most important part of this. Improve the access and understanding of weather information, and only then will people be in a position to use this information to take action. Actions can range from something as significant as relocation or evacuation, to something smaller but impactful like moving your assets or household items to a higher position in your house to prevent them being damaged by floods.

Community-led solutions

In a workshop, we co-designed three to four communication solutions. We let the research findings and the community guide our implementation decisions. The solutions included improved weather broadcasts on national radio, a phone tree system using SMS and WhatsApp, public awareness campaigns, and embedding weather information within schools. 

The schools pilot, as we refer to it, was a particularly endearing component of our project. We worked with six to eight schools across the city. This pilot involved training teachers and groups of students, usually through the schools’ environment clubs, to access forecasts and improve their understanding of this information and what it meant for their school communities.

Several schools said that, during the rainy season, many of their students’ materials tended to get destroyed when they get wet in the rain on their way to or back home from school, or that students’ belongings might get damaged by flood water when they leave them at home.

So, this was a recurrent problem. Based on the information they had gotten from the National Meteorological Service of Tanzania, the Tanzania Meteorological Authority (TMA), some of the schools decided to create spaces within their grounds for students to store their materials on particularly rainy days, so that students wouldn’t have to carry them in the rain, and they wouldn’t get wet or damaged by flooding in students’ homes.

The TMA was actively involved in this project, providing several training workshops. To bring it full circle, we carried out an endline evaluation. At the end, we held workshops to go over the findings, collectively assess the project and make plans to continue some of these activities.

Getting and sustaining stakeholder buy-ins 

In terms of practical actions, we had to spend time with each individual stakeholder to build up that relationship and get a buy-in. Key stakeholders included the TMA, the informal settlement community, the city authorities, a few media houses and some other stakeholders in the city system. The Centre for Community Initiatives (CCI) was the main implementation and intermediary partner, facilitating partnership-building among the stakeholders. 

The partnerships between these stakeholders developed and flourished as, ultimately, we were all working towards the same goal – that is, providing better services for communities in Dar es Salaam.

DARAJA’s (and the project’s) aim of reducing loss of life, livelihoods and assets was very much in line with TMA’s goals of providing better forecasts and information to the general public and other stakeholders, and similarly, it was aligned to the city authorities’ goal of providing better services.

Community ownership

The number-one best practice is to keep communities at the centre of the project. I think that’s our biggest lesson, and the key element of the success of DARAJA and any other model like it. We are constantly learning different ways in which we can do this.

The second most important practice is working with local partners. In every place we work, the context is different, and I wouldn’t presume to know everything about it. Local partners are very much embedded in communities and have a greater understanding of them.

The collaborative relationships developed between these stakeholders have been sustained by a feeling of community ownership, lasting beyond the closure of the project.

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