Improving Hydro-Met services in developing countries

Contributed by Florian Pappenberger, ECMWF. 

It is in the DNA of every HEPEX-er to believe that better hydrological forecasts contribute to human wellbeing and economic prosperity. We also know that the forecasts themselves are not enough and need to be accompanied by adequate warnings and receptive civil societies (amongst many other factors). A particularly important role in ensuring that a forecast has impact, falls to the National Hydro-Meteorological Services (NMHSs). A recent guide by the World Bank focuses on the challenges of, and opportunities for, improving the least advanced services whilst attempting to provide guidelines for sustainable development. This guide highlights the complexity of providing such a service, from collecting observations and combining them with other products, for example in data assimilation, to providing accurate and timely forecasts and warnings, and disseminating this information efficiently in order to trigger appropriate actions.

It critiques the overemphasis of many programs on developing observation networks whilst ignoring the often greater challenges to enhance the entire service. It emphasises the need for all investments to be sustainable and highlights that modernisation cannot be piecemeal. The guide lists examples of World Bank hydro-meteorological projects, with an impressive value of 1.1 Billion US$ of funding invested in Hydro-Meteorological or Early Warning Services. This raises the question of the effectiveness of these investments; the authors highlight that “sometimes the modernization efforts have focused more on the technical details and infrastructure without paying sufficient attention to the expected level of services or the absorption capacity of the recipient NMHSs” (p8). Modernisation projects need to embrace all components of the System of Systems (see figure) and ensure that they are developed to the appropriate level. The second chapter of the guide discusses the many aspects of modernisation in great depth, in order to move towards the ability to provide “hyper-local forecasts and warnings tailored towards individuals’ needs” Arguably, however, most of the challenges listed are demanding even for very advanced NMHSs.

System of Systems as presented in WMO, 2019, p17

All these developments do not necessarily lead to the creation of an effective NMHS, which the authors argue requires the evolution of the traditional business models of NMHSs, and embracing their changing roles in society ranging from increasingly challenging operational models to the rise of the private sector. The guide focuses in particular on the Concept of Operations (unnecessarily using the acronym CONOPS) which is “a document that describes the scope and characteristic of the proposed system and the way the system (or system of systems) will be used, […] It must consider all stakeholders, ensuring that the CONOPS is readable and relevant to high level decision makers and system operators “ (p45). The details of how to develop such a CONOPS are explained in great detail, but perhaps most interesting is the list of common mistakes (p48):

  • Expecting external parties to develop the CONOPS
  • Developing the CONOPS after system delivery
  • Allocating too few, or unqualified, staff resources
  • Copying a CONOPS from elsewhere
  • Neglecting to update the CONOPS

I am sure HEPEX-ers could easily extend that list…

The guide finishes by recognising that there is no best approach in modernizing NMHSs, as many diverse country- and situation-specific elements need to be considered. Above all, it is important that any improved system has ownership from the onset by the NMHSs involved. Several practical and pragmatic steps to achieve such improvements are given – read them and see what you think!

In my opinion, the report has two glaring gaps:

  1. It predominantly focuses on meteorology and although many issues between meteorological, hydrological and oceanographic forecasting overlap, there are a number of issues that do not. A simple example is that Meteorological Limited Area Models rely on Global Models to provide boundary conditions, whereas hydrological models are localised and far less intertwined with inter- or cross-national initiatives. This inevitably has an impact on, for example, the design of a CONOPS, and should have been recognised in the guide.
  2. NMHSs are not alone and the private sector is not the only other actor. Many countries have effective, modern, engaged and enthusiastic NGOs delivering essential functions, in particular in the case of national emergencies. For example, the forecast-based financing projects of the Red Cross come to mind, which aim to assist the mainstreaming of the ‘early warning early action’ model into Red Cross Red Crescent disaster management worldwide. Such efforts need to be recognised, incorporated and integrated into any improvement plan for NMHSs in developing countries.


World Bank, 2019. Weathering the Change: How to Improve Hydromet Services in Developing Countries?, Washington, DC: World Bank



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.