In Focus interview: Garvin Cummings, Chief Hydrometeorological Officer

Updated: Jun 20, 2019

Garvin Cummings, the Chief Hydrometeorological Officer at the Hydrometeorological Service, spoke to us about the varying weather issues in Guyana and how the service is working to increase public confidence.

Could you give us a background of yourself and your work in Guyana?

I work at the hydrometeorological service, which was established in 1965. This came out of a recommendation from the WMO and the service was established under the Administratorship of Public Works, and then in 1992, we were moved to the Ministry of Agriculture, because Guyana’s economy was largely based on agriculture, and it still is.

So obviously the climate is a major influence in terms of agriculture. Guyana, in general, has what we call a wet, tropical climate with little variation in terms of its temperature, and humidity, and rainfall throughout the year.

In Guyana, we have three main rainfall regimes. We have what we call the tropical savannah, which is down south. This is the very dry regions as they have less than 1,800 millimetres per year in terms of rainfall.

Then we have a very wet tropical rainforest climate that is in the mountainous area in western Guyana. In this region,  rainfall is usually greater than 2,700 millimetres per year, it can get as high as 3,700 millimetres per year.

Finally, we have wet, dry tropical in the rest of the country, which has between 1,700 and 2,000 millimetres of rainfall every year. However, the seasonal variation in temperature is very minimal, especially down in the coast, even though we have an average day time temperature of 29 or 30 degrees Celsius. The combination of the temperature, the heat and humidity can sometimes make life in Guyana a bit uncomfortable, especially in the dry season.

But the good thing is that in Guyana, we are always under the influence of the northeast trade winds, so usually by midday, you get some good sea breeze coming across cooling down the temperature for us. So that’s a quick overview of what typically our climate is here in general.

I also need to say that from central and northern Ghana we have two rainfall seasons. We have the primary rainfall season which we call the May, June rain because that’s when the main rainfall season peaks. From November to January we have the secondary rainfall season where rainfall amounts are less but we can also have this period as well, so known for high-intensity rainfall.

The distribution is a bit different in the two seasons what we’ve experienced. We have almost annual occurrences of floods, especially along the coast, and some inland riverine areas. These floods have had significant impacts on the local economy, predominantly in agriculture. We’ve had lots of losses in crops and livestock.

The two major export crops in Guyana are rice and sugar. Floods are a major issue here in terms of the impact of climate, and obviously, because between 15 to 20% of Guyana’s GDP comes from agriculture, the impact on agriculture productivity has a direct impact on the performance of the country’s economy so weather, climate and floods are a major concern.

Certain parts of Ghana, like central and northern Ghana, have a single rainfall season, which lasts for about four months. During this four-month period, the region experiences quite a number of flooding events which inhibits ground transportation and has a direct impact on commerce and trade. The roads there are not paved and the roads have bridges across the rivers. Very often, almost on an annual basis, we’ll have one or two of these bridges collapsing which makes road transport difficult during that period.

For the next eight months of the year, the other region in the southern part of Ghana which is the Rupununi region is dry, and we experience drought-like conditions for the majority of the year. The dry conditions make access to potable water extremely difficult, and there’s usually a resultant degree of water stress in the region so you have one period where you have an excess of water, and for the next eight months you have a deficit.

It’s really a water management issue, and the government of Guyana has been taking steps to address that by taking steps to to construct reservoirs in the south, and as well as drilling for groundwater to provide potable water during the extreme conditions.

So you can save the water when it’s there, and drain it when there’s too much?

Correct. We save it for the next eight months. The other thing is that we do have El Nino and the southern oscillation influences the Guyanese climate as well. Maybe two to four years, or maybe five years you’ll have a bout of El Nino. El Nino brings extremely dry conditions or extremely wet conditions and that, of course, will affect agriculture, mining and almost all of the possible livelihood activities in the country. In summary I think those are what I would consider to be the main impacts of the prevalent climate on Guyanese livelihoods.

It is always the public perception of the quality of the work, the accuracy of the work is always one of those big hurdles and barriers that you have to get over. We have to produce quality work, and then people will begin to recognise what we are doing. We want to get to the point where if we don't give a weather report today somebody misses us. If we stop giving one and nobody misses us that means they do not really depend upon us. So over the last three years, three to four years we have been investing heavily in terms of building our human resource capacity, improving the technology that we use and improving and expanding our network.

The majority of the network right now is manual, which means we depend on somebody to read an instrument, it’s not highly automated. In order to expand the network in the more sparsely populated area, we have been trending towards the more type of automated network but maybe we have to invest in the human resource capacity so that we are able to maintain those stations in a timely manner.

You mentioned that the lay of the land makes it difficult to actually access a lot of locations. Is that the reason for continuing to use manual stations, due to maintenance issues?

Right, exactly. The road network, for example, is very limited so you can't access every place that people live by road or at least by paved road. Also, because people are not living in some areas, the network has been restricted to only where there’s a population. That does not always coincide with the risks, the vulnerability that might exist, because there might be a river, for example, that is not monitored because there’s nobody living there, but it flows towards the coast where 90% of the population is.

So it does affect where the 90% live, even if it happens out in the countryside.

We’re going to invest in improving the human capacity, and make sure staff members are trained, invest in technology, new automated stations, and all the works. Another big challenge we’ve had is that we have a radar which allows us to do some [unclear] casting but we still have a big gap on the communications side, as in how do we communicate what we observe to the general population.

The good news is on that end two weeks ago we have employed our first PR person. So now we hope to get on Twitter, get our website more user-friendly, get on FaceBook, get on social media. So hopefully, employing this young lady will allow us to sort of close that gap between ourselves and the general Guyanese population in terms of what we do, and helping them to understand what we’re doing.

Very often people don't trust met services because they don't really understand what you do in the first place. We have to be able to communicate what we’re doing to the general audience, so we have to move away from technical, scientific language, and to really break it down in a way that non-meteorologists can understand, and be able to use the information. Not only have access to it, but they also understand it so much so that they can use it to make decisions on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a seasonal basis as well.

The attempt here is really to make the Guyanese populous dependent on what we provide, and what we produce so that if we were to disappear tomorrow, there would be crowds protesting on the streets that we want back our met service. That is really the overall vision and objective of what we’re trying to achieve here.

We hear that problem quite a lot, especially when there’s not much communication between the end users and the met services. They don't often even know that it exists, or especially in any detail of how much work you actually do for the population. But once you get the backing of the population then that helps with visibility and getting everything. Do you broadcast on television?

No, actually we had an arrangement with the government television network where we did the weather forecast at least once in the evening time. That has fallen through, it’s temporarily down right now because of the equipment. We were given a grant and we work with the UK met office but that is down right now. We’re still on the radio and the internet.

One thing that I forgot to mention that in terms of how we communicate, not necessarily with the general public, but in terms of the specialised agencies. In 2015 we started with support from W Moore and the Climate Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology we started a national climate outlook forum. We had the most recent one two weeks ago, which allows us to bring the main stakeholders, the government Ministries, NGOs, international organisations in the one room, and at the beginning of the season where we share with them the forecast. We also share with them the products that we have and get their comments, receive their feedback on our products so that we can adjust what we’re doing to meet the needs of the users.

It sounds like a really good initiative to be able to have an open dialogue with the end users like that.

We do this twice a year as of now, where we bring everybody into the room at our expense. They come in, they ask questions, we present the forecast, we present different services and products. They get to comment, they get to tell us if it’s making sense or not, where we need to improve and then we come back and we make the adjustment, and then we go back again in six months time to them, share that with them.

We also do a review forecast verification, because we present the forecast at each forum, and we do our review, a verification then a review of the live forecast, and we compare that with what was actually observed. When people see that what we forecasted what was actually observed, then that I believe improves the confidence in terms of the work and the perception of what we’re doing here as well. that has allowed us to really bridge that gap between ourselves and our stakeholders.

I know that you’re a part of CIMH but obviously, you’re on the continent of South America. I assume you coordinate on certain things with the likes of Suriname, Brazil, Venezuela, but also with the Caribbean on other issues. How do you balance the two there?

Really, I believe, we are strategically placed, because we are on the South American continent like you said. We are the only English speaking country in South America. That makes communication sometimes a bit difficult because nine of the other 12 countries speak Spanish. In the past, we were considered to be culturally and politically more similar to the Caribbean. So we’re considered mainland Caribbean, like Belize, and to some extent Suriname as well.

We are part of the Caribbean Meteorological Organisation which it’s headquarters in Trinidad and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology in Barbados. At the same time, we are a member of the Regional Association III, of the World Meteorological Organisation, that’s how we’re placed in South America. So we have the advantage of working in both the Caribbean region and the South American region.

We’ve tended to in the past work more with the Caribbean because of the similarity in our infrastructure, our network is more similar in terms of its development to what is happening in the Caribbean region than what is happening in South America. Generally, apart from Suriname, the other countries are very much more advanced than we are in terms of the technologies that they use, their human resource capacity, and so on.

So we’ve tended in the past to work more with the Caribbean region. But we are now attempting to align ourselves more with what is happening in South America. The last meeting we had in Santiago, Chile is where we made a presentation to get Guyana involved with what is happening in South America because we have a lot of transboundary issues.

From the weather resource perspective, we have an interest there, as well as most of the storms affecting coastal Guyana. On the weather side, most of the weather affecting Guyana from the east, or the northeast usually comes from French Guyana and Suriname, and then gets to Guyana.

We have an interest in having some sort of a radar network that is linked with the three countries because it is in our interests to see what’s happening further east because it ultimately reaches Guyana.

Is there anything else that you wanted to speak about?

I mean for us being able to invest in a more automated network so that we can see what is happening around the country, in real time along the coast. We’ve also considered decentralisation as one of the things, but again we have a very small population, and the skills are not easily accessible. For us, automation is the way to go, how we manage that in terms of sustainability is one of the major questions that we have not been able to answer.

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