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First virtual climate-services meeting for Pacific is ‘important heads-up for water resources and COVID preparation’

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Vanuatu
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Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
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The sixth Pacific Island Climate Outlook Forum (PICOF) was held virtually late last month, ushering in “a new era” for the annual forum which gathers national meteorological and hydrological services and their regional and global partners.

The meeting generated a summary of recent climate and ocean conditions and a full seasonal outlook up to October issued through the World Meteorological Organization’s Pacific Regional Climate Centre Network.

Some key messages from the meeting include a forecast neutral El Niño-Southern Oscillation state at least until the middle of the year, and average to above average cyclone activity in the north-western Pacific.

PICOFs are organized by the Pacific Meteorological Council’s Pacific Islands Climate Services (PICS) panel with the Samoa-based Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) and other key partners.

More than 40 participants joined the meeting remotely due to the travel restrictions from COVID-19; it was hosted by SPREP and the University of Hawaii.

Dry season

Held annually in the Pacific since 2015, PICOFs “ensure consistency in access to and interpretation of climate information for the Pacific,” said a news report on the SPREP website.

The PICOF meetings are normally convened in October to coincide with the start of the cyclone season in the south-west Pacific and the dry season in the north Pacific.

“However a recent review found that one PICOF a year is not sufficient to provide much-needed information on the state of climate, including the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, which is the major cause of year-to-year climate variability in the Pacific,” said Allan Rarai, Manager of the Vanuatu Meteorological and Geo-Hazard Department and PICS panel vice-chair.

The 21 April virtual meeting was therefore the first of two planned for this year, coinciding with the start of the south-west Pacific dry season, with a second now planned for October.

“It’s important to emphasise that this first virtual PICOF should be viewed as a pilot, and the PICS Panel will evaluate lessons learned afterward,” said Olivia Warrick, Co-Chair of the PICS panel and the Climate Centre’s Senior Pacific Climate Adviser.

“COVID-19 may well mean that a face-to-face PICOF in October this year is not possible, in which case this is an important trial run.”

The virtual PICOF discussed the prospects for the north Pacific cyclone season and “recognized the upcoming challenges posed by the dry season for many Pacific island countries, as the demand for water increases due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the SPREP report added.

‘90% destruction’

“As people isolate at home, travel between islands is restricted, and handwashing and hygiene measures are increased, a sustainable water supply is fundamental,” said Dr Warrick.

“Some locations have recently experienced significantly drier than normal conditions [and these] will be exacerbated for countries recently impacted by Tropical Cyclone Harold.

“Outlooks for the dry season are therefore a very important heads-up that can help to inform where resources can be concentrated to support COVID-19 preparation measures.”

The IFRC last month issued emergency cash grants to help the Red Cross societies of Vanuatu and Fiji respond to Cyclone Harold in what it called “an increasingly complex disaster environment”; Luganville, Vanuatu’s second largest city, reported almost 90 per cent destruction, the IFRC said in a press release.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone more than 1,000 Red Cross volunteers mobilized across Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands to offer physical and emotional support.

“The challenge in several areas is compounded by the risk of coronavirus and the potential impacts on already vulnerable and often geographically isolated, communities,” said Daniell Cowley, IFRC COVID-19 Pacific Operations Manager.

Vanuatu Red Cross volunteers assess damage and humanitarian needs after Tropical Cyclone Harold. With disaster response complicated by COVID-19, the first-ever virtual climate services conference for the Pacific is providing vital early guidance on the implication of seasonal dryness for water resources and all-important handwashing.