Michelle Leslie is a Toronto-based journalist and meteorologist who writes about humanitarian and environmental issues.
The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of people around the Indian Ocean when it rolled onshore.
Eighty percent were women.
Men out on fishing boats escaped the biggest of the waves, while the women onshore, often working in fields or caring for children and the elderly, were easily swept away.
The massive loss of life prompted a large multi-nation effort to develop a more effective tsunami warning system all around the ocean.
Now, weather specialists are hoping to adopt similar approaches and technologies to help spread information about catastrophic weather events. Training, sirens, radio, and especially, cellphones, are all being used in this growing effort.
And while both genders are at risk, new initiatives are designed to help women in particular because of their vulnerability, their central role in the family and the fact that they are often excluded from the conversation.
According to Elena Manaenkova, assistant secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, only 10 percent of those receiving the weather training are women despite the fact that they make up almost half the agricultural labor force.
Dr. Arame Tall, a Senegal native who worked in the rural town of Kaffrine, says women are not only farmers but also cooks, child-care providers and water gatherers. Increased droughts make jobs and life even harder.
As farmlands dry up, harvests are smaller and the journey for water longer, requiring women to spend more time on the basic necessities. Tall recalls hearing a woman named Soxna say, "Men plant first, and for themselves." Because women are not provided with farm tools until almost a month after men plant, an unexpected weather change will have a greater effect on women. "If there was an abrupt end in rainfall during the season, they would be handicapped," she says.
In Kaffrine, weather directly influences livelihood as three out of four people rely on farming to make a living, meaning weather forecasts are critical. Recent work by Oxfam in Cambodia and the (CIGAR) Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers in West Africa found that weather information was not making it into the hands of women.
Tall found that while women did have access to radios, in order to reach them information had to be broadcast early in the morning or late in the evening when they were most likely to be at home.
The power of technology
Cellphones, too, are proving to be vital tools to get weather warnings out. The new tsunami warning system uses cellphones to send warnings via text messages that can drastically reduce the human toll in the future. Women and children often have ready access to cellphones, even in poor countries like Senegal, and Tall found that sending texts in local languages was a reliable way to reach the most vulnerable populations.
Dale Marshall, with Environmental Defence, a Canadian not-for-profit group, traveled to northern Cambodia in 2008, spending almost three years working with communities through Oxfam. What he discovered was that during periods of floods or droughts, access to clean water was an enormous problem. If a flood occurs in the middle of the rice season, it can wipe out an entire crop or result in a reduced yield. Additionally, contaminated water leads to sickness.
He says on the ground, direct communication is key. "If you are able to get a critical mass of elders you end up getting a pretty good timeline of when the disasters happen and their frequency," he says. Marshall says speaking to community elders provides unbeatable knowledge of local weather history and is useful to mapping out a timeline of frequency of events.
As part of his work, he found that implementing a Disaster Risk Reduction Community, or DRR, was one effective tool, helping women prepare and deal with weather events. DRRs work by setting up a point person, such as a local member of the Red Cross, who gathers weather information and then distributes it to women. Marshall points out women tend to receive information through unofficial sources, such as local markets and wells, so community members specifically target women at these locations in order to make sure the information reaches them.
Partnering with schools to get children to share information also proved to be useful, as did interviewing women before and after major weather events to understand what their needs are and how effectively the information was delivered.
This is just one component to looking at storms, according to National Weather Service Deputy Director Laura Furgione, who says that after storms hit, interviews need to be done with women so that they can learn more about what is going on in communities and how they can improve upon reaching them.
She points to the tsunami warning systems. "We have found outdoor sirens to still serve as a critical piece of our warning infrastructure," Furgione says. "Additionally, we saw how educating children helped move folks to the hills immediately after the ground shook rather than waiting for warning confirmation."
Tall says women who once had no access to weather information now have the ability to protect their families. She points to testimonials saying now women keep their children at home during heavy rainfall events, saving lives that could have been lost to flood waters. She stresses the key to success is getting weather information into the hands of women.