File photo of storm clouds gathering over the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal's Ballito area. Picture: Karen Sandison
File photo of storm clouds gathering over the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal's Ballito area. Picture: Karen Sandison

Thinking about telling someone that a heavy storm in your area might lead to flooding? If you do it you could be fined up to R5 million.

The South African Weather Service Amendment Bill, in its current form, would make the issuing of severe weather or air pollution-related warnings illegal, if written permission has not been obtained.

The bill will make warnings from community-based weather and pollution watchers illegal. It will also place the popular international weather websites, such as Windguru, Windfinder and Accuweather, in a difficult position.

Questions have been raised about whether the SA Weather Service (funded by the taxpayer) should be disseminated freely, rather than requiring a commercial subscription.

The bill stipulates that a person contravening any provisions was liable to a fine of up to R5 million or imprisonment for five years, and in the case of a subsequent conviction, to a fine of up to R10 million or imprisonment for 10 years.

One of the bodies which could fall foul of this is the community-based weather watch organisation SA Weather and Disaster Observation Service (Sawdos).

It recently warned people about the uMsinga, Nqutu and uMvoti storms, possibly reducing losses and damage.

Founder, Johan Terblanche, voiced concerns about the proposed legislation. Sawdos receives real-time weather observations from the public and then publishes these observations .

“As the amendment bill now reads, nobody will be able to issue any warning of approaching severe weather.”

He told the Daily News that the body published observations including images and videos on Twitter, Facebook, their blogs and radio networks to warn the general public where severe weather is observed.

“The question now remains whether the Sawdos will be able to continue as before.”

A person could obtain permission from the SA Weather Service to issue such a warning.

“But experience has taught us that to get permission from any institution takes time – that is if you can get hold of the designated person.”

The organisation is to submit written comments on the subject to the Portfolio Committee at the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs.

“Real-time weather observations are absolutely crucial as people can observe weather phenomena that instruments cannot see,” he said.

Terblanche said that he could only speculate on the Department’s motives for the changes.

“The SA Weather Service chose the commercial route; radar images are no longer freely available to the general public as before. Radar images are a valuable resource which is used to monitor thunderstorms for severity (intensity), direction and movement. The public must now pay a subscription fee (for them).”

Another commercial venture by the Service, he said, was the SMS subscription service.

“The real-time storm warning subscription service from the Weather service sends SMS messages of storm warnings to paid subscribers. If you cannot afford this service you do not receive any real-time storm warnings. We render a free service by the public for the public.”

Vaclav Hornik, who runs the WindGuru weather service website based in Czechoslovakia was shocked at the development.

“I do not know what the practices are in SA (but) my personal opinion is that this is unbelievable ... it’s like it was here during the communist regime. Freedom of speech punished? It’s a nightmare.”

Chief Director of Communications at the Department of Environmental Affairs, Albi Modise, said this amendment was aimed at protecting the public against the distribution of inaccurate or hoax warnings or predictions.

“(These) could cause public panic and lead to evacuations and/or the unwarranted waste of resources (money, people and technology). Once the bill is passed, government will be able to act against people who wittingly or unwittingly issue warnings based on false or misleading information that effectively causes public harm.”

Furthermore, he said, the bill would ensure that there was no possible confusion around warnings – if it came from the Weather Service it was official, if it did not, check with the Weather Service first.

Sending on a warning from the weather service would be seen as supporting the objectives of the warning-related provision, and re-tweeting an actual and accurate “observation” of severe weather or air pollution was also unlikely to be considered a contravention of the bill, he said.

“However, with reference to the purpose of the unauthorised warning prohibition… a Tweet that provides an unauthorised warning based on false or misleading information that gives rise to, or may give rise to, unwarranted public panic and reaction (eg evacuations, unnecessary mobilisation of emergency services, etc) will be considered a contravention of the bill as would a re-tweet of such a “hoax” Tweet.”

However, hoaxes usually “quote” reliable sources, such as the Weather Service, to be believable.

Environmental scientist and the SABC’s former weather man, Simon Gear, said that while he understood the Weather Service’s concern to prevent people from spreading panic through misinformation “willy-nilly”, he also understood the need to warn people of impending disaster.

“Four years ago rumours flew around that tornadoes would strike Johannesburg – nothing happened.”

In 2007 e-mails and SMSes circulated which caused emergency services to be inundated with calls from worried residents.

And while some areas experienced heavy storms, no tornadoes occurred.

“Despite mix-ups and misunderstandings of this nature taking place, I don’t see what prosecuting the people or group responsible would achieve – they were genuinely trying to warn people,” he said.

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