Every Airline Now Rely On Our Weather Forcasts, Says NIMET

Before now, weather forecasts from NIMET were never taken serious because the exercise was limited by equipment and training manpower. The situation is however not the same any longer. Today its compulsory for any airline pilot to obtain weather briefs before any flight. A statement that underlines the accuracy and reliability of such forecasts. Dr Anthony Anuforom, the Director General of the Agency, in this interview with Stanley Nkwazema explains the transformation in the parastatal  and its functions.

Can you tell us the condition which you met this organisation and where you have taken it so far?

As you probably know NIMET took off as an agency in 2003. Prior to that time, it was actually a department under the Ministry of Aviation, so it was in 2003 that the act of the National Assembly was put in place and NIMET took of. I came on board as a director of applied meteorological services and in 2007; I took over as director general. In specific terms, the infrastructure we had at that time was far less than what was required for NIMET to operate as an agency.

In terms of staff morale I could say that it wasn’t really what it should be. There was general despondency and of course, probably understandable because people were trying to shake off from the habit of operating purely as a civil service. There was also the issue of training, manpower capacity building and all these were at very low end. I will take the issue of infrastructure for instance. What we do here basically is to observe weather and we do the observation using instruments, some of them are what you call conventional instruments that are operated manually. Others are automated instruments and the basic unit of that observation is what we call the observatory.

In a typical enclosure, we measure about thirteen weather variables every hour. So you must have an instrument to measure these thirteen weather variables on hourly basis. So at the time I took over we had only 36 observatories across the length and breath of Nigeria, so when we did introspection, in other words, we now did a self-audit to find out really where we were to establish the condition of these observatories and the result was very shocking. We found out that out of the 36 synoptic stations only four of them scored over 50 per cent instrument availability, only four out of 36 scored above 50 per cent.

The highest score was 64 per cent and that was Ilorin. What it means is that these stations were really not observing weather, as the instruments were not there. Those that were there were either obsolete or were not functional. That was the first task we had to face so we now embarked on a process of mass and urgent re-instrumentation. In other words, we had to resuscitate the instruments, those we could resuscitate and those we could not resuscitate we now embarked on buying and installing new ones.

Not only that, we also proceeded to expand the number of synoptic stations. Today we’ve moved from 36 to 54 synoptic stations and I can tell you that with a high sense of responsibility that virtually all our stations are operating if not 100 but 90 or 80 per cent. But of course where it is less than 100 it’s because, one, if the fault is not reported on time to us by the officer out there in the field, there is no way we will do anything. Number two, even when it is reported time is required for us to order new ones or send our engineers with spares to get them repaired, but that situation is far better than what we met on ground.

Now I have taken the issue of the synoptic station because that is most fundamental observation we do here. It is the most fundamental thing we do. We move it a little further to more hi-tech equipment, and I can give you a summary, the summary is that at 2007, there was no low level wind-shell alert system in any airport in this country. Wind-shell is a deadly atmospheric phenomenon that is very unkind to aircrafts and a few of the crashes we’ve had in this country, wind-shells have been mentioned as part of the problem encountered by the pilot.

So at that time, there was no single airport equipped with wind shell alert system. It was only in 2008 that the first wind shell alert system was installed here in Abuja airport, but today we’ve moved up that number. Lagos has since been equipped with wind shell alert system, Port Harcourt has been equipped, Kano has since been equipped. Now Benin, Owerri, Sokoto and we are looking at doing the site acceptance test by the end of this month. These are not off the shelf kind of equipment, it does take time, probably rolling over more than one year to complete one. But we are moving, before the end of this year, we would have had a lot more. Don’t forget that we started from zero; today we are counting Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Benin, Owerri, Sokoto and Yola. These are the locations we are now counting as either totally completed, and functional or at the verge of being completed.

So where are we today in terms of upper air stations? In addition to Abuja, we now have upper air stations in Maiduguri, Kano, Lagos, Calabar, Jos, Yola and I think two or three other places. All together we have eight upper air stations moving from one that was donated to eight that we now have. We can go on and on. There are other equipment that I don’t need to go into details, but the summary of it is that, at the time we started, the state of infrastructure was nothing to write home about. But today that has been very remarkable improvement in terms of infrastructure.

What do you think are the consequences of not having these equipment and its impact in the Nigerian aviation sector?

The impact is that you could not really vouch for the accuracy of the forecast you are giving; we are not saying it was inaccurate, but it is now a lot more accurate as it is today. The weather forecast we have, because government has put in so much money, and thanks to the Minister, Mrs. Stella Oduah, the amount of effort that has been put in during her regime in terms of inspiring leadership has been tremendous. NIMET has become ISO 9001 certified. That means that you are doing it to the highest standard, so we embarked on that process of getting our system compliant with international standard. Earlier this year therefore, we submitted ourselves to audit. NIMET is probably the fifth or so meteorological service in Africa to accomplish that feat. Others of course you can guess who they are, the usual South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania and all that. So NIMET is either the fifth or sixth. And in West Africa NIMET is first. And what is interesting is that most other countries in West Africa started the process before us but could not satisfy the requirement for ISO 9001 certification, so for us it is indeed a big feat.

This answers the question about the impact. So the combination of all these efforts is that our services now meet all known international standards, so that is where we are at the moment. Now what is the implication of this, and I must align it with the aviation master plan of the Minister, Princess Oduah. The Aviation Master Plan I am sure you are also probably familiar with new vision and mission statement. The master plan is a totally transformational programme that would make aviation sector in Nigeria to be safer, secured, comfortable and to be self-sustaining.

The Aviation Master Plan opens up opportunities for aviation to play its role as an economic enabler. Because if you think of such novel programmes and new ideas like Aerotropolis very huge economic potentials, if you think of the perishable cargo initiative, very huge economic potential. So you can see that aviation is now going to unlock the hitherto untapped potentials. To think of it, there’s no part of this country that doesn’t grow one type of crop or the other almost effortlessly.

Interestingly many people believe that NIMET only services the aviation sector. They don’t know about the services that are rendered to the construction sector, agriculture and agro-based industry. Can you throw more light on these services?

It is a very wrong notion, maybe driven by the fact that NIMET is a parastatal under the Ministry of Aviation, but it is historical, because at the time the agency was carved out as a parastatal it had operated as a department in different ministries including agriculture. At another time it was in transport at another time it was back to aviation. So in 2003, it was under aviation, however, our services cut across every other sector. If you look at section 7 of NIMET Act where the functions of this agency are defined, you will see that we are expected to render services to other sectors apart from aviation and it is understandable. Why? There is no aspect of human activity including your health that is not affected by weather.

Be it sports, power generation, road construction, water resources, dam management, human health, air quality. All these other sectors are affected in one way and to one degree or the other by weather. So this is why NIMET offers wide range of services to other sectors of the economy.

What have been the challenges in rendering effective serves?

There is no transformation that is easy, going back to basic physics; a nutshell seems to be a basic part of life. But you must overcome that nutshell. The only thing I must acknowledge is that our minister has given such an inspiration that will make it look easy, but it’s quite challenging and of course we are on the march and what we have achieved is a process. And as we often say, excellence and efficiency is not a destination you cannot say I have now arrived. It is a process, so every day we continue to strive and make it better.

There have been these insinuations that airlines don’t cooperate with you by not obeying weather reports, what has been your relationship with airlines?

First of all there are procedures and requirements; remember that the international civil aviation organisation has what is referred to as standard and recommended practices. So there are procedures, which everybody submits to otherwise you are not doing it right. But I will like to say quickly that our relationship with the airlines is good. We have pilot briefing rooms, especially in the international airport, where pilots can walk into any time to discuss weather information. And I can tell you that everyday all these airlines do respond. Initially it was a bit of some will do some will not do. Probably coming from the experience of whether the reports are correct?

However, now that we have established that confidence that we are doing it, we are patronised. Because of her commitment, the Minister of Aviation has given directives that all airlines must obtain weather briefings before embarking on a voyage and I can tell you from the feedback I get from the forecast offices, there is good level of compliance, in fact she has gone to a point of even telling NEMA that before you give start-up you have to confirm that they have obtained weather information from NIMET. So the relationship is good, the habit is also not as bad as it used to be.

Do you generate funds from your services, especially to other sector of the economy?

Where we are going now is in the area of increased commercialisation, but there is a challenge there. The challenge is that many people believe that as a government parastatal, the services should be free. You are aware of our seasonal rainfall prediction, which we do every year. It costs us million of Naira to produce them even when we are not being given any form of subvention to shoulder our expenses. The experience of the last year flooding across the country is still fresh in the minds of Nigerians.

Mr. President has given it to us as a standing order and made it clear that he will not take any excuse from any organisation that does not perform its functions. He will not take any excuse if Nigerians suffer the way they suffered last year. So we are all taking it very seriously therefore that despite the fact that we are not making money we have to render those service as public good. I am talking about the flooding of last year once again. Last year, we predicted what was going to happen as early as March 1st, but this thing happened August-September last year.

If you pick up our rain fall prediction for 2012 that was made public on March 1st, 2012. we made it very clear that it was going to happen, we kept monitoring and by late July to early August it was imminent, it was no longer if, we are now looking at when will this thing happen. We kept monitoring and when it became clear that we are in for some challenge, we even wrote letters, we wrote letters to some states that were vulnerable telling them what to do. But in the usual way they ignored.

The issue of funding has not been properly addressed?

The issue of funding, yes, your observation is right. Government has invested so much. Don’t forget also because we must link up all these things-the Aviation Master Plan and the new aviation mission and vision talks about sustainability. Now you cannot remain sustainable by going to government all the time to give you money, government has invested all these huge sums of money in wind shell alert systems, in upper air stations and so on, but then they have to be maintained.

Because we must make money and that is why the main direction we are going now in NIMET is commercialisation. Very recently I looked at the UKMET office, which is the equivalent of NIMET in the UK. UKMET office is a fully commercialised entity; their turnover last year was over 205 million British pounds. If you covert it you will be looking at over N50 billion. So if a country’s MET service can rake in over N50 billion we can do something here, but of course we must acknowledge the fact that there are cultural challenges here, in UK a typical English man is very much aware about weather.

He is ready to pay to get the information, but here we tend to take it for granted, but we are not going to use that as an excuse to have our strategy. We are discussing even with UKMET office, we are developing templates and strategies for elaborate commercialisation programme for the agency. We are also opening up other areas, we haven’t mentioned the marine sector; there are huge potentials there. We are talking to NIMASA, we started a programme with them, but know we have to start afresh with the new chief executive; otherwise we had gone far with them.

Last year there was prediction of heavy downpour and this year there is another prediction, but we are now in August going into September. What are the expectations?

What we predicted is that the rainfall pattern of last year would repeat this year. That is what to expect. But the question is, is it going to have the same effect, in order words what you are trying to ask me, is would that same flooding occur? My response to that is that flooding happens as a combination of so many factors. Habits of people, the precautions you take and so on. And that’s number one, number two, it is not only the rain fall in Nigeria that caused that problem, you know River Niger flows through many countries to get into Nigeria. River Benue from somewhere in Cameroun into Nigeria, so whatever the rain fall regime is there, will therefore affect the inflow of water so what the local rainfall does is that it predisposes the environment to flooding.